Saturday, March 04, 2006

Eating Indian in New York

I discovered Indian food about thirty years ago. I’m not sure who introduced me to subcontinental cuisine, but I started frequenting several East Village Indian restaurants with my co-editors of Zone magazine after editorial meetings. In retrospect, I can state with reasonable certainty that they were not very good Indian restaurants, but at the time I thought they were excellent, and Indian fast became one of my favorite cuisines, joining Chinese.

Of course there’s really no such thing as Indian food any more than there is Chinese, French or American food. That is, there are very important regional differences among Indian cuisines that are often as significant as the overlap. I was, however, completely unaware of this when I started eating Indian food in the East Village in the seventies.

The first Indian restaurants I frequented, on 2nd Avenue, were prototypes for what soon became the notorious 6th Street restaurant–a Bengali rendition of standard, Mughlai-style north Indian restaurant cooking. Our first favorite was called Oriental, then we moved on to Modern, both long gone. Modern Indian was run by a nice, if somewhat overbearing, man who bore a striking resemblance to Gomez Addams. Twenty-five years later I can tell you that most of the food was brown and greasy, most dishes variants of a baseline curry, with spicing “to taste” added as an afterthought, the spices clearly not freshly ground. At the time we thought Modern was better than some of the other cheap Indian places we tried, and it might have been, as the differences among bad to mediocre restaurants would have been more noticeable at the time. Once familiar with a greater range, both of quality and style, within a type of cuisine the differences at the bottom become less distinguishable.

By the early 80s all the cheap Indian restaurant action was on 6th Street. Over a relatively short period of time, from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, a single block between First and Second Avenue became the home of about eighteen Indian restaurants (I believe I counted once), with spillover onto the avenues. There were rumors that most of the restaurants were run by the same family, and that they shared a single, communal kitchen. Apocryphal I’m sure, but the similarity and low quality of the food inspired such urban legends. Eventually the block became one of those awful tourist restaurant enclaves one finds all around the world–touts in front of the doorways trying to lure visitors who have come for the block rather than for any particular restaurant. Thankfully, in the past several years a number of the Indian (or, more precisely, Bangladeshi) restaurants on the block have finally given up the ghost, to be replaced by an eclectic mix.

For a while I was a denizen of 6th street, but I eventually learned how good and varied Indian cooking could be. Traveling to India three times helped.

My first great Indian meal was probably at Madhur Jaffrey’s Dawat, in the early eighties. The food was spectacular, but it was also four times as expensive as any of the places I was used to, and at the time this was a major splurge.

One of the best things ever to happen to my taste buds as well as my wallet was my discovery of Minar, in 1987, I believe. Minar is a cafeteria-style place that serves both north and south Indian food. I believe the owners are from Delhi. The south Indian items like dosas and utthapams are decent, but the northern items shine. The best deals at Minar are the combination plates. For $7.25 one can choose two meat and one vegetable item, $6.25 for all veg., with a choice of rice or bread (I highly recommend the naan). In addition to dishes made to order, there are at least 12 items available in the steam tables each day for combinations. The place is so popular that they’re always fresh. Some of the selections, among them lamb curry and chicken tikka masala, as well as some of the best aloo gobi (potatoes & cauliflower) and saag paneer (spinach & Indian cheese) I’ve ever tasted, are available all the time. In addition there are daily specials, one of the most notable being Tuesday’s sarson ka saag (spicy, pureed bitter greens), a Punjabi specialty traditionally served with a griddle-cooked cornbread called makki di roti, which I’d describe as something between a thick tortilla and a dense polenta. The only items to avoid are the kebabs and tandoori chicken, as they’re precooked and reheated. Minar is basically a lunch place, though they are open until 7:30 PM. There are two locations, one on 31st St. just west of Fifth Avenue, and one on 46th St. between 6th & 7th.

I also discovered south Indian cuisine in the 80s. There are multiple cuisines of the south, but the most common in restaurants is the all-vegetarian Udupi (or Udipi, depending on who you ask) cuisine, named for the town in coastal Karnataka where the dosa & utthapam was born. Udupi restaurant staples, many based in rice and lentil flour, are actually breakfast and snack foods in southern India. A dish I’m especially fond of, since first tasting it in Kerala during my first trip to India in 1991, is uppma, usually described as Indian cream of wheat, a couscous-like hot cereal with cashews and spices. Dosa Hut, at Lexington & 27th, makes the best uppma I’ve had anywhere, India included. Overall the best south Indian meal I’ve had in New York was at the fairly new Saravanaas, nearby at 81 Lexington. I’m somewhat perplexed about the names of these two places, though, as one of Dosa Hut’s signs lists an alternate name of Saravana Bhavan, while Saravanaas, which is apparently a branch of a Madras hotel & restaurant chain called Saravana Bhavan, does not acknowledge Dosa Hut as a sibling. If that’s confusing, it’s nothing compared to India. Another outstanding south Indian place is Madras Café, on Second Avenue between 4th & 5th streets. The owner, who worked in the kitchen of several top New York continental restaurants before returning to his roots, is a mensch. Before any of these places had opened my top south Indian place was the now-defunct Mavalli Palace, run by a man with the delightfully symmetrical name of Varghese K. Varghese. It is very important, I learned, to pronounce Mavalli with the stress on the first syllable. Mr. Varghese once overheard me referring to his restaurant with the stress on the second syllable, and he made sure to correct me. “Ma-VAL-li is a street fight,” he said, “but MA-val-li is a godess!”

I was very sorry to learn of the recent demise of the short-lived Asaivam, also in Curry Hill, as the stretch of restaurants on Lexington in the twenties is known. Though the kitchen was uneven, it was the only New York restaurant I ever knew of to serve a full menu of Chettinad cuisine (though several restaurants do offer chicken Chettinad). This is the non-vegetarian cuisine of the Chettiars, a Hindu merchant class of the Chettinad area of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars, being merchants, traveled and settled widely, especially in Southeast Asia, and they are responsible for much of the Indian influence on Indonesian and Malay cuisine–this I learned from a waiter at the Raintree Chettinad restaurant in Madras after commenting that the chicken Chettinad reminded me of the Malaysian dry curry dish known as rendang.

I haven’t been to Dawat in years, but Madhur Jaffrey is also a consultant to another favorite of mine, Café Spice, which its owners describe as an Indian bistro. Its locations are characterized by sleek, modern design and a mostly non-Indian wait staff. The menu is multiregional, and they’ll occasionally devote a month to specialties from a particular area. Pricewise it’s mid-range, foodwise it’s high-end. The dinner platters come with a main course, side vegetable of the day, legume of the day, rice and particularly good naan, so at roughly $16-21 per dish it’s quite reasonable. I discovered early on that ordering appetizers was overkill. Seafood dishes, such as Goan shrimp curry and Malabar fish curry (a Keralan specialty) are standouts. Their one weakness is in the boneless chicken dishes, which tend to be on the dry side. They have a fast food outlet in the food court at Grand Central Station, yet somehow their food doesn’t hold up in the steam table as well as Minar’s. I’d recommend sticking with the Village (72 University Place) or Midtown (54 W. 55th) locations.

The best way to sample the upscale Midtown Indian restaurants is at the affordable lunch buffets, usually around $14. The lunch buffet, by the way, is also a tradition at the top restaurants in mother India. One of the best in New York was Shaan, by Rockefeller Center, but they have recently closed. Bay Leaf, at 49 W. 56th, is in the same league. The menu is multiregional, and the buffet always features a wide-ranging selection.

Though I’m not a big fan of Gujurati cuisine, Vatan is worth mentioning, as much for the total experience as the food. The restaurant serves a prix-fixe thali only, as is traditional in Gujarati restaurants throughout India. It’s an all vegetarian cuisine that is quite different from southern or other northern vegetarian cuisines. There’s a certain sweetness to the flavoring of the food (all Gujarati food, not Vatan’s in particular), which is one reason it doesn’t really bowl me over. Still, it’s worth going for the traditional Gujarati atmosphere, the beautiful traditional costume of the wait staff, and the traditional floor seating to go with the traditional thali. And I am a sucker for khaman, a steamed lentil flour cake that is reminiscent in texture to cornbread.

A friend of mine recently reported having sighted another friend of mine leaving a 6th Street Indian restaurant. When I asked this other friend if the scandalous accusation was indeed true, she sheepishly admitted it. I told her I'd let her off with a slap on the wrist this time, but that I will shortly be starting a hall of shame on this blog.


Anonymous Steve said...

Hey, Pete, have you done any serious prowling around Jackson Heights? Just curious as to how you rate the formerly great Jackson Diner, as well as some of the other more impressive entries out there. I had a nice lunch and some fabulous sweets a couple of weekends back.

12:55 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

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8:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I confess, in all humility, that I rarely get to Queens, which on its own may well be the world's greatest ethnic food "city." So I don't know what the current crop of Indian restaurants is like. I will agree that the Jackson Diner is "formerly" great, and has been for some years.

If you have some Jackson Heights recommendations, feel free to share them.


(prior comment deleted for uneditable typos)

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm from London and LOVE indian food. I'm grateful I stumbled upon your NY reccomendations as I feel lost in this city without a good Saag.

When I first came to NY everyone told me to eat at Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens, and while pretty ok - it wasn't Kastoori in Tooting Bec, London.

I recently sat next to a Tamil guy on a plane and he said the best indian food was to be found was Keralan fare in New Jersey. Any ideas?

7:52 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I'll have to research the Keralan angle in New Jersey since I love the cuisine (and the area). I don't know of any Keralan places in NY. In London I've been to Malabar Cafe near the British Museum, but I think there may be other, better Keralan places in your town. I've always enjoyed Gopal's in London.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the London Kerala food - Malabar Cafe is OK, but far superior are the Rasa chain of restaurants run by Das Sreedharan (there's a seafood one on Charlotte Street) and one of Oxford Street (and the original in a kind of out of the way part of North London). His cookbooks are fabulous too!

2:53 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Thanks for the info. Next time I'm in London I'll be sure to check it out.

6:26 PM  
Blogger pooja said...

Hello, I once heard of a small and very cheap roti spot in the village or near the village in NYC. It served roti's stuffed with all sorts of goodies from tandoori chicken to veggies, etc. but I cannot FIND IT ANYMORE! I never visited it, only read of it in a magazine which I cannot find anymore but I was hoping you might have heard of it.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

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7:40 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Pooja, maybe you're thinking of Kati Roll.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

The full menupages url won't display, but it's at MacDougal near Bleecker.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Symbiosis said...

Wow, I just moved to Ny a couple of mths ago and this is very good info...
I recently stumbled upon kati roll and I bet thats the place that was being mentioned in the earlier and great rolls..
I ate at a place called Curry recommended by a frnd...not that great..the food was not authentic..
I will be sure to check out Minar and dosa hut the next time in NYC..

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, its very refreshing to see someone review Indian food the way it was meant to be reviewed.
I'm from Mumbai, India, and I'm a big foodie too. Saravanas has one of the best South Indian foods I've ever eaten in the US, really authentic.
The best North Indian food I've had is actually in Queens - it's a small hole in the wall called Punjabi Dhaba, on Richmond Hill. The owner and all the waiters speak Punjabi only :) but the food is absolutely unbelievable. It's better than a lot of Indian restaurants in India even, so its really good.
If you love Indian food, you have to try that place.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Thanks for the kind words and for the Punjabi Dhaba recommendation. I'll try it some time.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Peter,

Thanks so much for your guide as a "Guru" of Indian food in NY!
I recently arrived from Europe where I started a chain of Indian restaurants, so I miss good Indian food already!

To be honest "Tabla" on Madison Square Gardens was good but way overpriced. "Mint" again is expensive in a trendy environment but amazingly unfriendly service compared to the famous NY smiles I've become used to!

Long live Indian cuisine in NY...


1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, I love your blog. Thanks for your great commentaries and advice. I have gained a favorite restaurant through your championing of Wu Liang Ye, for which I'm very grateful to you.

I have recently discovered Saravanaas, and have visited four times in about 6 weeks thus far. If only I lived closer, I think I'd eat there daily! I would love to know your favorite items on the menu. Thank you!

10:01 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

At Saravanaas you can't go wrong with the thali. I'd also recommend the mini-meal, which includes excellent bisibelabath, not ubiquitous at NY South Indian restaurants. While the dosas & uttapams are good, there are a number of other places nearby that do them just as well.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Pratap said...

Kati Roll a must for anyone visiting NY.
I am from England where we have probably the best Indian food found outside of India! Visited Kati Roll earlier this summer & found delicious fresh food at ridiculously low prices.

2:11 PM  
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5:56 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

By the way, I recommend everybody avoid Dimple restaurant in New Jersey. Not because I've been there, but because these idiots shamelessly spam food blogs.

10:28 AM  
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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Yet these fucking shmucks try again!

7:04 PM  
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