Sunday, January 27, 2013

Doaba Deli, 945 Columbus Ave, New York

I have been raving about too many Indian places lately, but I cannot help but rave about one more.  One, that for 7 bucks, will put most other places to shame.

The name, Doaba Deli, has a lilt to it.  It is as if the Pied Piper from a hamlet in the Doaba, a fertile region straddled by the Beas and the Sutlet rivers in Punjab, has been playing his culinary music and bringing home cooked vegetarian Punjabi food to throngs of taxidrivers, whose cars line the footpaths outside this tiny, cramped restaurant. 

Inside, there is a line of Sikhs and a few scattered locals waiting patiently for the cook cum cashier who has kept all on hold while he makes some rotis. There is a tiny kitchen and a small sit-in area that accommodates about 3 tables and a counter for taking your meals standing.  The walls are lined with religious pictures. 

And what food it was.  Seven dollar a plate.  Includes 4 items in a compartmented Styrofoam thali, a cup of hot Punjabi chai, one chapatti and one missi roti (a wheat and gram based chapatti).  We had sarson ka saag (spinach and mustard greens), a mixed curry of peas and cauliflowers, daal, a pureed turnip (shalgam) curry and a lauki (gourd) curry. 

We ordered and waited for the food in the small room heated to 52 oF with a space heater.  The cook was multiplexing as a cashier and our food would take a bit of time. Young and middle aged Sikh men stood at the counter eating and chatting in Punjabi.  A college going American couple waited at the next table.  A while later, one of the customers walked up to us and handed us our two teas.  Told me that the cook, shorthanded, had recruited him to deliver teas to the “uncle” sitting in the dining room.
When the food arrived it was fresh and tasted home cooked. Every single vegetable curry was perfectly made, you could not ask for more. The rotis had been made one at a time on a tawa: the meal reminded me of one I had had once in a small town in in Kutch more than 30 years ago which we had devoured with the same urgency that we did this afternoon.  This place was every bit as good an eating experience as Devi, at the other end of the spectrum of Indian restaurants in Manhattan.  Find me an Indian place that will give you a curry of gourd and turnips and not carry saag paneer!

 I have railed about honesty in Indian food lately—Indian food is not about ambiance and presentation, which is more of an occidental (and Japanese) trait, and it is not about obsequious staff and pretentious bric a brac. Doabi Deli, pulls out all the stops on this one—authenticity, freshness of the food, taste, and the warmth of the place inspite of its 52 oF ambience.  This is one place in Manhattan that seems unconcerned about time, about efficiency of service, about the kinds of things that we usually get all uptight about. The uncompromising cook takes his time making the rotis while the line accumulates at his counter, the backup is late in arriving, and customers are conscripted, impromtu as waiters.  It is this ambiance that works here, primarily because the food is so good, and the place is such an effective antidote to the cold and efficient Manhattan on the outside of its glass doors.  If you can accept an alternate model of romance in a restaurant that does not include candle lights and fine crystal, then you could even find this place to be romantic.

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