Eating Indian in New York
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.