When I moved to Ann Arbor in the mid-nineties, Raja Rani served as an important landmark. The quirky-looking, white house on the corner of Division and William was my gateway to downtown. When I drove past it I knew I was entering the funky heart of Ann Arbor. Nearby was the State Theater, the Michigan Theater, David’s Books, The Diag, Shaman Drum. I would drive (or bike) in about once a month, park near Raja Rani, grab a savory but relatively inexpensive Indian meal, then walk to a movie, concert, or to browse one of the bookstores.
Over the twenty years I’ve lived in this community— exploring the rest of Washtenaw County— Raja Rani has undergone a number of iterations. Still, I’ve always viewed the old white house fondly whenever I’ve driven past, seeing it as my transition to the bustling activity of downtown.
Now Raja Rani is no more. As of March 1st, it reopened as Namaste Flavours Indian Kitchen. While still finding its legs in terms of redecorating and staffing, I’m hopeful it will become an iconic destination.
A buffet option for dinner
According to ownership group member Uma Thotakura, taking over Raja Rani is the group’s attempt to expand via a third restaurant following a successful ten-year run with an initial restaurant in Farmington Hills, and the opening of a second location in Canton. Part of the reason Ann Arbor was chosen for the new endeavor is because Thotakura’s son attends UM.
“Our goal is quality service and authentic and affordable food,” he says. “We’re here for everyone, of course, but we want students to be a strength for us.”
On a recent Monday evening (the restaurant, open Mondays, is closed Tuesdays), I was greeted by a friendly host who led me to a table in one of the house’s cozy side rooms and asked if I was interested in the buffet. Turns out, I definitely was.
Look, I’m a buffet guy. I like having lots of options and mixing and matching with varied portion sizes. Offerings included a fresh Indian bean salad, with chopped beans, garbanzos, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, along with a more conventional garden salad; a colorful array of fresh fruit; a couple fresh-baked bread options, including a flavorful and chewy naan; a pungent, but not too spicy Palak Paneer; a wonderfully creamy and zesty butter chicken; a super-spicy red chilli baby corn; a special chicken biryani (also quite spicy); a lightly spiced navratan korma (mixed vegetables); a lamb vindaloo; and a tandoori chicken. And for dessert, a fruit puddingt, light and slightly lemon-flavored with fresh blueberries, grapes and apple slices.
Balancing hot and cool
Overall, the buffet provides a nice blend of spicy and mild options so if you choose something particularly adventurous (like the chilli baby corn) which sets off sparks in your mouth, you’ll be able to follow it with something cooler and creamier to soothe your tongue. “One mild, one spicy,” Thotakura says when describing how the selections for the buffet are chosen. “Everybody wants mild at first, but slowly grows to spicy.” Perhaps, that’s why each table is furnished with its own pitcher of water.
The buffet is offered daily from 11:30am – 3pm, and on Monday evenings, which was perfect for this erstwhile high school teacher, dining alone and grading essays at his table. Oh, and, yes, the price was absolutely right at $10.95.
Of course, one can also order off the comprehensive regular menu which offers a full slate of reasonably priced vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, including numerous tandoori, vindaloo, masala, dosa and biryani options. All the meat and vegetable dishes are freshly prepared each day. “We don’t keep anything frozen,” Thotakura says. It looks like the funky white house on the corner of Division and William is in good hands with Namaste Flavours and will continue to serve terrific and affordable Indian food.
400 S. Division St., Ann Arbor.
734-995-1545 | Namasteflavoursarbor.com