It was very much within my lifetime that London’s most traditional meal switched from Fish & chips, to Curry & rice. By contrast, New York’s Indian fare is nowhere near the scope and scale of London’s, but the clutter of turmeric-awninged establishments up and down Lexington avenue in Manhattan’s Curry (Murray) Hill are just the preview of the larger story. Thanks to an incredible fellowship of chefs from all across the Indian peninsula, Michelin and the New York Times have been generously honoring Indian restaurants with stars, stripes and other accolades. Here’s how they shake down for me.
Categorizing from fastest to slowest (Curry in a Hurry notwithstanding), IndiKitch is the papadum and samosa version of Taco Bell. Good, clean, tasty and fresh. You build your meal from carbs to cattle with chutneys, sauces and rices on the side.
For in-home delivery I have Dhaba on speed-dial right below 911, thanks to their vast menu of all-time classic favorites, made just the way I like them: Tandoori, Korma, Paneer, Masala, Vindaloo…even a collection of British-inspired curry dishes. If you love Poori like I do (a hot-air filled, angry, blow-fish looking pillow of bread – the size of which remains curiously dependent on the weather) you have arrived!
One of the newer kids on the block is Pondicheri. What the exposed-ceilinged, cavernous Flatiron space lacks in intimacy, with one teal wall and a massive gray mural with what looks like a couple of giant balls of wool quickly unraveling across another, or the head-scratchingly ominous tangle of cables and wires overhead, it more than makes up for in non-traditional, but authentic pan-regional fare. The Houston import is more of a “community concept” than just a restaurant. With a huge enviro-agenda, cooking classes, pop-up event dinners and a super-busy in-house bakery, where chef Anita Jaisinghani churns out the most extraordinarily yummy Indian interpretations on popular western confections.
Donuts dripping with rose-water honey, Financiers with pistachios and cumin, Rice crispy bars with nuts and curry, coffee cakes, cookies and ginger snaps that populate the breakfast and lunchtime counter. Dinner is a bit smarter. Down goes the lighting, and out comes the wait staff. The best way to navigate the mainly street-food menu, is to go for one of the freshest and tastiest Samosa’s on the island, followed by one of the Thalis platters, that provide a half dozen different dish-lets of kebabs, soups, poultry, ribs, greens and more. I thoroughly enjoyed the one called Earth for its standing-ovation worthy Butter Chicken.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Tabla on Madison Park, turns out chef Floyd Cardoz is back, but this time he’s converted one of those typical West Village neighborhoodsy corner cafés into his next culinary canvas. Paowalla (named for the bicycle peddlers of traditional breads) offers so much more than just cumin/cardamom/chili delights. The carb-forward menu is a striking introduction to the real world of Roti and Naan, stuffed with cheeses, radishes, bacon and herbs. Cardoz also pulls together a few unexpected pairings, many of which make for happy surprises like Burrata submerged in a delicious puddle of Dal, or the tandoor-fried Black Pepper Shrimp, while others…not so much. The overly-soggy, coconut-laced Baked Crab might have been more comfortable under the protection of its shell, but I adored my first ever Dogfish curry, smothered in flavor, steamed in banana leaves and served with tart mango over brown rice.
Going even further along the bridge toward experimentation, Michelin star winner Suvir Saran’s new downtown bistro is appropriately named Tapestry, in my mind suggesting the very fabric of what comprises our city, offering up a menu every bit as diverse as the kitchen staff, the clientele and the planet in general. Saran calls it “comfort food from around the world.” Maybe. I prefer: “The united nations of yum!” It’s where India whimsically intersects with Italy, Morocco, Mexico, Peru, Portugal and Louisiana – otherwise known as the F train.
You can’t help smiling as you scan the remarkably affordable menu that has the chutzpah to combine a heavenly Arancini with green curry, or a tangy, sweet and crispy Okra salad with chaat masala. How about an irresistible Cauliflower roasted with hakka spices? Or the only time I can ever remember asking for left-overs to be boxed up: a super-tender Short Rib with cashew-poppy kurma. And the dish that just became my ultimate bribe ever – the utterly sublime Masala Fried Chicken. I still dream and drool about those flavorful sections of spicy, fried chicken tossed in a sticky, sweet and savory chutney, alongside a peanut slaw. And finally, almost triumphantly, a guava and passion fruit, flaming tribute to a baked Alaska called Fire and Ice. We’re not talking fusion here. This is pure kitchen magnificence.
That brings us to the northern end of the price/flavor scale. Indian Accent just celebrated its first birthday as one of New Delhi’s finest exports into Manhattan’s midtown maze. The dark, sleek and sexy interiors look, smell and feel nothing like your typical Indian restaurant. Almost formal – if you’re judging by the prix fixe options of 3 or 4-course menus, but casual enough to do without the tablecloths.
Despite the litany of translations and explanations the poor wait staff have to decode – thanks to the lexicon of unrecognizable and unpronounceable items, there’s no collective sighing or rolling of eyes – yet. The plating is gorgeous. The flavors are remarkable. The cocktails are imaginative. The service is excellent. The prices are high.
Standouts (and judging by our neighbors on both sides who imitated us plate-for-plate) are the Potato Sphere chaat, which is a charming miniature birds nest of crispy potato shoelaces spun into a ball over a white pea mash, the utterly finger-lickingly delectable, butter-pepper-garlic baptized Crab Claws, the unsharably wonderful sweet and sour, fall-off-the-bone Pickled Ribs, the scrumptious Chicken Kofta (meatballs), and the magnificently tender Braised lamb with prune korma.Each main is accompanied by a choice of Kulcha (if an enchilada and a calzone had an Indian baby) stuffed with any number of interesting ingredients like hoisin duck or pastrami mustard. Yes folks, we’re a long way from curry in a hurry!