Friday, March 16, 2007

Oh! Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta

Nehru Place

ICC Building, next to the Intercontinental Hotel

New Delhi

When I think about Delhi restaurants I dwell back to the early seventies when, as a child, we went to Nirula’s for a “tutti-frutti” ice cream. My mother went there as a student at Miranda House, and now visited as a young mother. Delhi has changed a lot since. Here we were, a group of mostly scientists in Delhi for a conference, cruising through Nehru Place in two cars to “Oh! Calcutta”. Bengali cuisine is taking off in India, in upscale restaurant settings, starting out from that city several years ago. Restaurants like Grain of Salt and Oh! Calcutta are popular in Kolkata and that popularity has translated to Bengali restaurants in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore . “Oh Calcutta” is in a businesslike highrise that could be in any metropolis in the world and is located on the ground floor. Walking in we were greeted by Mr. Biswas and to my relief the entire staff was from Bengal. For days now I had been carrying out in broken hindi, and the opportunity to let go in Bengali was godsent. I was soon to realise that I would also be letting go of any ingestive restraints shortly. The table for Mr. Biswas is where we sat and I put our collective faith in his hands to feed us. The food was superb, like fine, filligree work. Bengalis pride themselves on their fish and we ordered some. Gandharaj Bhetki—steamed Bhetki fish with a lemon aroma wrapped in banana leaves, Hilsa fish that tastes only like Hilsa can, cooked in mustard. Similar to Shad, it is bony and this is the levy you pay for the complex taste of its flesh. Then there was Daab Chingri, succulent shrimp inserted into green coconuts and slowly cooked. It is a pleasure to go to an Indian restaurant for food that was not oily. Railway mutton curry, the name evocative of the food served in Railway restaurants did not quite taste like that (it was better) went well with the luchis. These are dishes that, with the demise of Babu in Greenwich Village, I cannot find in the States. We had a meal that was sumptuous and, given the company of scientists who consumed it, I will describe the spread of food as a comprehensive body of work, thoughtfully cooked, precisely articulated, analytically conceived, and placed in a contextual framework that befits its popularity.

Passage to India

Passage to India
17 Main St., Mount Kisco
(914) 244-9595
Sitting at the lunch buffet the other day at The Passage to India, I was reminded of what Indian restaurant food used to be like in the early nineties in the US. I pondered three meat curries in front of me—red, slightly redder, and slightly less red. Soggy pieces of meat floated around, assaulting the tongue with approximately the same sensation. The meats were different, but that did not seem to make much of a difference. And so I sat there with my wife at one of the small tables right next by the glass frontage at the entrance, with the sun streaking down upon us on a perfect Westchester early summer afternoon, reflecting on the other Passage to India, E. M. Forster’s somewhat stereotypical novel of an Englishwoman’s encounter with the mystical East, of pomegranates and Miss Adela Quested, and what these listless concoctions were doing in front of me. Indian food is not just supposed to be spicy as many might interpret—sort of like a football game that at first sight could reflect the use of brute force over technique. But let me not dwell too long on what did not quite work out for me. The fritters were great, nice and crispy as were both the desserts offered that afternoon. One was the Halwa. Aside from some pink food coloring, it was refreshingly tasty, and surprisingly restrained in its sugar content—something that appealed to our middle aged palates. The other dish was the milk based kheer that I felt was deliciously rich and creamy. Indian desserts have not managed to garner the partronage that the curries and rotis have and it likely takes a bit of an effort toget to like them. But if you do happen to drop by the Passage to India, do not leave till you have sampled their desserts. The restaurant started recently, at the site of a now closed Jazz club. At a time when Indian restaurants in the tri-state area are getting to be innovative beyond the vindaloo-tikka masala-tandoori nexus, this appears as a throwback place with food that could have been cooked with a bit more imagination and attention.
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Coromandel Cuisine of India
30 Division St.
New Rochelle
Two visits to Coromandel in New Rochelle and I am bewildered, as one is with a bright, but undisciplined child. Are these the makings of a brilliant, but moody cook? Was that Calamari, blended in with spices that made this dish feel a fabric of Indian cuisine for hundreds of years? But did not those Gulab Jamuns hit me with a slightly sour note? Uneven food, but I would go there again. In a heartbeat. Coromandel could be called “tending towards New Indian”, and they are certainly not afraid to stretch your experience to new, and at times improvised, Indian dishes that you would would be hard pressed to get elsewhere. At dinner one night we had Salli Boti, a lamb dish cooked with onions and sprinkled with crisp potatoes and apricots. We also had the Gostaba, yogurt marinated lamb cooked in a tandoor. Both excellent, different, arcane Indian fare, from the Parsee and the Kashmiri communities from India. I emphasize different since both these peoples are slightly apart from the Indian mainstream. The Parsees, Zoarastrian emigres from Persia from about a thousand years past have maintained their own distinct culture in the course of this time (the most famous of Parsis in the West have to be Freddie Mercury, a.k.a. Farhad Bulsara and Zubin Mehta), as have the Kashmiris, isolated by their montainous residence. This was great food and that thirty minute ride from Northern Westchester did not go in vain. But a repeat visit on Mother’s day brunch and a couple of other non-vegetarian dishes had me wondering if we were experiencing the same cook that afternoon. The fish, which needed just a few minutes on a hot flame, was leached in a curry till it had nothing left to give to the diner. The chicken was insipid, overdone, the kababs wonderfully spiced were a tad dry. But steer away for a moment from non-vegetarian dishes since the truer test of Indian culnary skills lie in how you treat your vegetables. You can always mask your sins (to some extent) with meat by a nice yogurty marinade, but getting a curry or bhaji out of vegetables without destroying their freshness is not an easy task. Like dogwoods in a forest in early summer, little flakes of coconut peaked thru a mass of beans, perfectly cooked and delicious. Okras, finely battered and just slightly crisp on the outside cooked in a sort of dry curry. Mushrooms as appetizers, cleanly tasteful. And Coromandel prepares its own Kulfi, Indian ice cream brought over around the 16th. century by the Mughals by way of Persia and Afghanistan. Kulfi is denser and contain less mixed in air volume compared to ice cream. That is what I had the first time, and that is what I will order the next time that I am there which, I am sure, will be soon.
Coromandel Cuisine of India on Urbanspoon


Great food in the Village


99 Macdougal St. (near Bleecker St.)

Greenwich Village

Indian food from Bengal in New York City

With some exceptions, Indian restaurants in this country often attempt at evoking the grandeur of their Persian or British rulers. However- if you are tired of seeking Heat and Dust Chicken or Lamb Shah Jahani, and want to bypass visions of empire through these hackneyed culinary mutations on menus, go visit Babu.

Tuked away on MacDougal Street, in a little entrance below the more popular Kati-Roll company, sits Babu, an authentic Bengali restaurant. Meticulously prepared, true to form Bengali food. Expect a menu that even the savvy ethnic eating New Yorker will find unfamiliar. There is street food that reminds you of Nizam’s and Anadi Cabin in Calcutta. Finely sliced potato fries in little deflocculated grassy heaps, mutton kebabs and chutneys with fresh ground spices that bubble with taste on your tongue. There are arcane, complicated dishes like Macher Paturi and Daab Chingri, traditional food from generations past. This latter dish was lovingly cooked—shrimp steamed in a gentle curry sealed inside the moist softness of a green coconut.

Bengali food, unlike its artists and its scientists, have never really caught on outside of India. Within India, the Bengali’s love of fish, sweets, and lack of gender in his grammar are legendary. In the past decade upscale restaurants serving Bengali cuisine have sprung up starting from Kolkata and moving outwards. Babu seems to be an international extension of this trend.

The restaurant sits below street level, in a small dining room with surprisingly authentic décor imitating a small room in a suburban, or rural house. I am not usually a fan of the décor at Indian restaurants but this one is lovingly done, down to the little candles and the soot marks on the walls from the the combustion of oil lamps. The dishes took a while to arrive, but there is a reason. The items on the menu represent complicated fare, sufficiently varied from one another that they cannot be whipped up from a common base or curry. Mistrust the restaurant that whips up your Hyderabadi and Amritsari dishes in minutes—you will find that these deft cross-country culinary leaps can taste suspiciously similar. The food was good, and it was authentic. The daal had that slight hint of sweetness that you look for, the dry cooked Kosha Mangsho (meat, in this case mutton) had tender pieces of meat on the bone bathed in just the right amount of sauce that you can scoop up with your luchi (a puffed bread). The chilli chicken is a tribute to the Indo chinese food that you get from Tangra, an ethnic chinese suburb of Calcutta. The spiciness was a bit on the plus side, according to this reviewer, and he would probably ask it to be toned down the next time he visited. There could be a few more vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Babu, started this year by the owners of the Kati roll company, appears to be a labor of love with a painstaking effort at authenticity. If you are looking for a different kind of Indian food, a visit to this low key, little gem may be worth it.

Post-script added March 16, 2007: alas Babu did not survive, much to the dismay of this writer. It had to close shop, while the attached (and related) Kati Roll Company continues to do business. Calcutta food is just catching the wind in India, and Babu--while it favorably compares to similar restaurants in India--was, like Alauddin Khalji, ahead of its time for New York.

Mughal Palace

Mughal Palace
16 Broadway
Valhalla, NY 10595
(Opp. Valhalla train station)
Started a few years back by a couple of ex-Malabar Hills employees, this restaurant is strategically located right opposite the Valhalla train station. The food is imaginative—one of the best in Westchester—and has consistently improved over the past one and a half years that I have frequented it. This is a classical Indian restaurant with its usual suite of North Indian dishes that Americans diners are comfortable with. These dishes are well made, with some imagination thrown in. As I sat watching the steady stream of customers entering, I was impressed by the number of longtime customers that Abdul, one of the owners, warmly greets. There is a small bar stocked with a nice selection of bottled beers and the easy going, attentive manner of the wait staff makes the whole thing a pleasurable experience. One way to gauge the creativity of an Indian restaurant is to look at the tandoor fare-and a great time to do this is at the lunch buffet during a weekend. The tandoori foods at Mughal Palace was a pleasant surprise. This was no flaccid affair with large lumps of chicken legs, red with food coloring. The wings were delicious with clean, spicy tastes and not the jumble of flavors that you usually get. Kababs were just right, not too hot, not dry at all. Mughal Palace makes a decent dosa as well. While it may be listed as an appetizer, try it as a main dish as a change, particularly the masala dosa. This restaurant gets more crowded every time I visit and part of reason is likely that the co-owners have not let up on their quality control.
Mughal Palace on Urbanspoon


97 Lexington Avenue
on 27th street
New York, NY-10016
Indian takeout fast foods have finally come to Manhattan—first with the Kati Roll Company, and now Roomali. I grew up on the beef rolls at Nizam’s in Calcutta, and knew (and hoped) that it would only be a matter of time when this caught on here. Located right at the crossing of Lexington and 27th. Street (and on 27th.) an architectural wave on the storefront partially obscures the restaurant name. Step in there and you see that it is a roll place. Roomali, refers to the fine, waif thin, soft and stretchy rotis that are used as a wrap material for grilled meats. Roomal, hindi for handkerchief, stands as a benchmark for how thin the roti-at least in principal- is expected to be. While the rotis at Roomali miss this exquisitely delicate category and do not qualify as Roomalis, the rolls were certainly tasty. Take a roti, put it on a flat hot pan , smear and cook a thin film of egg on it, Now put your choice of grilled meats on the roti, roll it up, and wrap a paper around it that you peel off as you eat the roll. We tried the Bihari Kabab, Chicken Tikka, and Seekh Kabab rolls, washed down with masala tea (ask them to hold the sugar). My personal favorite was the Seekh Kabab, and on a busy Manhattan afternoon if you want something quick and affordable in the middle of the Indian strip in mid-town this is a great place to visit. The space for in-situ eating is limited to a few small tables, benches, and chairs and you pick up your food from the counter in front of the kitchen—but that is the point about having rolls. You pick them up and have them on the go. The food was good and the service was quick—I would have loved it if the eat-in area was kept a bit cleaner. The food still doesn’t match up to my idealized rememberances of Nizam, with its spicy meats, onions, white tiles walls, and the little eating cubbbies with soiled curtains supplying a thin privacy. But for Manhattan Indian, this was good stuff.
Roomali on Urbanspoon

Westchester Groceries

Westchester Groceries (a.k.a. Kabab Express)

546 Commerce Street, Thornwood, NY 10594

(914) 747-0445

Thornwood, NY 10594

As one drives by a lazy turn along a nondescript stretch of Commerce Street, there is a run down store with a small parking lot by the name of Westchester Groceries, with a sign underneath saying Indian food. Walk in there, and you see what looks like a haph-hazard sparsely stocked south Asian grocery store, a few scattered rickety tables, and food counters beyond. You will not get a better biryani anywhere in Westchester, than what is offered at this seeming hole-in-the-wall. Manned by an elderly Pakistani gentleman, the biryani is downright gorgeous. You can sit and eat right there, or, as we do, you can take the food home. The number of dishes are limited, and different days bring forth different items. If you need something in particular-call ahead and they make it fresh for you. Saturday they made Biryani, hot and moist, at 12:30 in the afternoon. Our family of four took home enough biryani, goat curry, and saag alu – all for twenty dollars. This was decent, honest, food that is served without fuss—it is muslim fare from South Asia that you can find right in the middle of Westchester County. Faithful patrons hop in on the days when their favorite dishes are made. Try the Baghare Baigan but call ahead to find its availability. A lot of the clientele do pick-ups, this is a good place to grab Naans to take home. As regards their curries, the quality is uneven—I liked their Saag Alu but found the goat curry too oily and spicy. If you want ambience and the ability to order from an extensive menu, avoid the place. But if you want biryani, that absolutely ranks among the best that one can get, then step into this sleepy place.

Note added Jun 2010: This place remains a strong restaurant with a unique service for quick and tasty take-out. The biryani has become better, The lamb kebabs remain excellent, though perhaps a bit spicy for my tastes. The ambiance remains messy, and indeed adds to the character.