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It's a culinary party at New York's casual Indian restaurants
SOME new restaurants you just know are going to be copied like Chanel handbags. I was fairly sure, for instance, that New York's dining future was full of backless stools, long waits, chicken-liver toasts and precisely engineered pub burgers after one meal at the Spotted Pig.
I'll admit, though, that when Babu Ji showed up on Avenue B in the summer of 2015, I had no clue it would turn out to be a template for Indian restaurants in the city. The blanketing sweetness that covered up the spices in several dishes caused me to write the place off. I should have looked more closely; I should have asked myself why tables were so hard to come by. But I didn't. Babu Ji closed less than two years later, after two wage-theft lawsuits were filed against the owners, and that, I thought, was the end of that.
So much for my second career as a clairvoyant: The lawsuits were settled, and Babu Ji was resurrected at another address, near Union Square. Meanwhile, over the past year I've been eating, often happily, in a number of new Indian places in Manhattan that are casual, not too expensive, and reminiscent of Babu Ji in one way or another. I think of them - Rahi, Badshah, Old Monk and aRoqa - as the Baby Ji restaurants.
Some borrow menu items without, thankfully, emulating the original's sweet tooth, which persists at its second location. What ties them together, and what I think will be Babu Ji's legacy, has less to do with cooking than with finding a style of casual, inexpensive dining that's in tune with current sensibilities. They're learning to create atmospheres and present cooking in ways that resonate with a modern audience, the way Hanjan and Atoboy have done with Korean food or Atla does with Mexican.
This is not an issue for the city's fancier Indian restaurants, such as Indian Accent, Junoon or Tamarind Tribeca. Manhattan has a long tradition of formal Indian restaurants, often overseen by cooks who learned to present their country's cuisine in a fine-dining idiom by hard-core training in India's extensive system of hotel kitchens. At the other end of the scale are the no-frills places where value makes style irrelevant. The middle ground, though, is ripe for the Baby Ji rebellion.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the source of Babu Ji's popularity is the way it mimics a big, informal dinner at a friend's house. Its owners, Jessi Singh and his wife, Jennifer, project gloriously hallucinatory Bollywood numbers on the wall. You're encouraged to "help yourself" to beer from a refrigerator case in the dining room. (Fear not, this will be recorded on your bill.) On top of the refrigerator is a stuffed peacock. Gallery-quality framed photographic portraits of Indian men set the geographic theme without falling into cliché. The food, overseen by Jessi Singh, is dressed for a party: The kitchen is fond of tossing flowers, sprouts and other garnishes on dishes that would otherwise be a study in browns.
None of the second-generation places go quite as hard as Babu Ji. But there is Hindi hip-hop at Badshah, in Hell's Kitchen, along with a spray-painted mural of tigers and skyscrapers by Carl Joseph Gabriel, and drinks served in canning jars. At Rahi, in Greenwich Village, surreal and cartoonlike figures by the street-art duo Yok and Sheryo crawl along the walls, and there's more high-energy work in the back from a New Delhi gallery of emerging Indian artists. Flowers and sprouts are rampant.
Over in Chelsea, aRoqa is the most cosmopolitan of the bunch, with moody cocktail-bar lighting and a swooping ceiling of bent wooden slats. The chef, Gaurav Anand, lightens the mood by serving rice-and-corn cakes in the luggage compartment of a tiny carrier tricycle. Dry ice makes an appearance, as do squeezable syringes, for injecting various chutneys into moulded drums of paneer. Needless to say, there will be flowers.
Old Monk, which took over Babu Ji's original space in the East Village, is decorated with a different set of photographic portraits of men. This time they are monks from around Asia; one is taking a picture and another is holding a smartphone to his ear. The beer fridge is gone, but there is a long beer list, drawn from the more mainstream wing of the craft-brewing movement, like Fat Tire, Flying Dog, etc. (The wine list takes more chances.) One of Babu Ji's more clever innovations is offering a US$62 fixed-price package of dishes as a tasting menu. It's not a true tasting menu in the style of, say, Blanca, but the term has cachet with modern diners, who end up trusting the kitchen to choose what turns out to be a well-rounded, traditional family-style meal.
Old Monk has kept this idea, in a US$55, four-course dinner called You're in Good Hands. I didn't try it, because my head was turned by the rest of Navjut Arora's menu: fine pork-stuffed Tibetan momos with a ferocious garlic-chili sambal; tandoori lamb chops marinated in rum and ginger; a slow-cooked dal of mixed lentils that is inspired by Sikh temple cooking and is very delicious.
Badshah's chef, Charles Mani, used to cook at Babu Ji, and even claims to have come up with its General Tso's Cauliflower, a spin on the classic Chinese-Indian fried cauliflower in chili sauce. In his new job, he calls it Badshah Cauliflower. I've eaten just one quick dinner at Badshah so far, and while I was content with the Kashmiri-style goat curry, I was less thrilled by the refrigerator-cold sauces spooned over hot potato croquettes.
The most exciting food in this group, I think, belongs to Rahi. Chintan Pandya, the chef, trained under chefs from the Oberoi hotel group, and comes to Rahi from Junoon, where he was executive chef. The cooking isn't as consistent from night to night as it should be, and Pandya can sometimes follow his creative impulses right over the cliff; my initial scepticism about tandoori lamb chops smeared with wasabi did not melt away when I tasted it.
More often, the flavours are vivid and unexpected. With a chaat of fried artichoke hearts and edamame in a fruity and sour sauce of tamarind and pomegranate molasses, Pandya showed that he could infuse non-Indian ingredients with flavours that are very true to Indian cooking. There is a captivating appetiser of dark-meat chicken in a basil-chili sauce called Tulsi Chicken, and an inexplicably good snack of Melba toasts under chopped shishito peppers mixed with melted Amul cheese, a processed and highly shelf-stable product that's everywhere in India.
And I'm slightly in awe of his tandoori skate, a pristine hunk of fish cooked so it just slides off its cartilage and coated with a yogurt sauce so rife with cinnamon and cloves that it tastes like A1 Sauce that some gifted cook had improved almost beyond recognition.
Over the weekend, I went to a new place that in some respects fits right in. The Bombay Bread Bar is a quick conversion of Floyd Cardoz's SoHo restaurant Paowalla. I don't have the nerve to call it a Baby Ji, though. Cardoz practically invented fun, casual, inexpensive Indian dining years ago at the old Bread Bar, below Tabla, and he brings some of his old tricks to his new place.
But I can't help noticing that the menu is easier to scan; that the cooking, as good as ever, has moved toward small, colourful plates and that the prices stand firmly in the middle ground. NYTIMES