We drove to Dhaba for lunch during one of the rainiest spells that New York City has seen, whipping up an appetite in the effort to find street parking. The Dhaba serves “British Indian Food”, as a sign proclaimed, though the word Dhaba itself originally refers to Punjabi truck stop eateries on Indian roadways. I remember one of my most memorable dinners in one, on a dark metalled highway in Assam at night, sitting on charpoys (a light hammock like bed with a wooden frame and four legs) in a little clearing by the road soiled with engine oil. Then in the mid 1980’s the “Dhaba” brand name caught on and trendy North Indian restaurants in places like Kolkata would adopt this name.
This Dhaba on Lexington had no truckers, no charpoys and no bedbugs that often accompanied the charpoys. The Bangadeshi taxiwallahs preffered to eat at Kasturi, a nearby hole in the wall on Lexington with great (apparently) Bengali food. Dhaba is a trendy Indian restaurant with a trendy New York Indian style—a tidy space jammed with people and a long row of glass bangles hung above the buffet spread in a horizontal line, a sort of letimotif to the place.
The appetizers at Dhaba were delicious, a significant cut above what I usually have. Do not miss the Bhel Puri, a sort of West Indian version of Jhal Moori, and Pani Puri, where you fill little crisp and hollow puris with spiced mashed potatoes and tamarind, plopping them whole into your mouth. Do not miss the Pao Bhaji either, a Mumbai specialty of bread and a potato- pea curry that originated as a quick lunch meal for textile workers in Mumbai, the Marathi name for bread adopted from the Portuguese “Pao” from neighboring Goa.
But just as a song that uplifts with its opening melody but dissipates in time when the tune can’t hold—so it was with the entrees that followed at Dhaba. In an undesirable salute to its name, the entrees were indeed like food sold at Indian roadside Dhabas: oily and spicy--cooked without much fuss or deliberation. The lamb curry was overtly rich, but the meat was soft and tender. The sag paneer was greasy, and lit up your plate with a fluorescent green. The entrees were not bad, as the huge crowds that afternoon attested to, it was just that there was little originality and too much oil. Perhaps it was because this was a buffet lunch, for the lunch entrees at Indian restaurants are often not up to the standards set for dinner. Finally do not miss the Dhaba style Indian tea—it is authentic.
There is one irritating note of complaint--Dhaba is a decent Indian restaurant short of a good dishwasher. More than once I had to reject a clean buffet or dessert plate because it had food stuck to it that was left over from the previous customer. For a Manhattan restaurant that is not cheap, this was atrocious quality control.