NYT: Field guide to new Indian restaurants in NYC

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From: Rohit Khare (Rohit@KnowNow.com)
Date: Wed May 16 2001 - 11:13:41 PDT


[I'm sure Sally will have a trip report from Mirchi for us soon enough! :-)
--RK]

May 16, 2001
Beyond Vindaloo: A New York Tour of India
By ERIC ASIMOV

FROM the outside, Mirchi is simply a glimmer of life on a stale stretch of
Seventh Avenue South, where cars begin their prolonged crawl toward the
Holland Tunnel. But a glance at the menu immediately brightens the outlook.

Instead of chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo, it is filled with
regional Indian dishes, like peppery Chettinad chicken from the south,
chickpea cakes flavored with chilies and cilantro from Gujarat in the west
and fish bathed in herbs from the Sind. Instead of watering down flavors for
Western palates, the menu states: "Entrees are on the spicier side. Milder
versions can be requested."

Among Manhattan's Indian restaurants, Mirchi represents a small revolution.
No longer will all menus list the same 10 dishes; it is now possible to find
authentic, regional Indian cuisine at neighborhood restaurants all over the
city. Simply by serving Indian food with spicing and seasoning intact, these
restaurants are reinvigorating a complex and fascinating cuisine that had
grown dreary with repetition. Gone are lackluster chutneys and dull curries.
Instead, sparkling flavors ring out, like the sauce of mint, tamarind and
yogurt on the seva batata poori, little round crisps topped with diced
potatoes and crunchy slivers of lentil-flour angel hair, served at Dakshin
on the Upper East Side.

"I think the American palate has changed, and restaurateurs are taking more
chances," said Prem Tolani, the owner of Mirchi. "There is more awareness of
Indian food in America, and that has made all the difference."

Along with Mirchi, the leading edge of neighborhood Indian restaurants today
includes Banjara in the East Village, for succulent tandoori dishes that
recall how good clay oven cooking can be; Tiffin in lower Manhattan, for
fascinating vegetarian dishes like a bright, spicy smoked tomato soup; Vatan
in Murray Hill, for a parade of subtle vegetarian dishes from the western
state of Gujarat; Mumbai on the Upper East Side, for Goan dishes like
chicken in a curry of ground poppy seeds and coconut; and Dakshin, which
also has a branch in Clinton, for beautifully seasoned south Indian
specialties like chicken stir-fried with chilies, ginger and curry leaves.

A couple of old standbys on the Upper West Side, Indian Oven and Mughlai,
are also in the regional vanguard.

These are not high-end Indian restaurants like Dawat and Shaan, nor are they
fusion restaurants like Tabla and, to a lesser extent, Tamarind, presenting
French or American food with Indian seasonings. And unlike restaurants in
Indian neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Queens, these places serve a
largely non-Indian clientele.

Some of the newer places, like Mirchi, appeal to a younger generation of
South Asians. Its dining room is simple and spare, with none of the copper
trim and stilted formality that characterize so many other Indian
restaurants. The pulsing techno music suggests a culture that has more in
common with London and New York than with rural Indian villages. The bar
offers fancy drinks, not to mention a wine list, rather than the usual
Indian beers.

Beyond looks and atmosphere, Mirchi is set apart because it is somewhat of a
joint venture among several longtime Indian restaurateurs, including Satish
Sehgal, the owner of Indian Oven, and Vijay Gupta, the owner of Mughlai and
Bay Leaf in Midtown Manhattan, who are involved as consultants. For Mr.
Sehgal, Mirchi has become a laboratory of sorts, for testing dishes like
Jaipuri lal maas, a spicy yet subtle lamb dish made with 30 red chilies.

"Jaipuri lal maas outsells anything on the menu," Mr. Sehgal said.

Not that long ago, Indian food represented excitement for many New Yorkers.
Like Sichuan restaurants in the 1960's, Indian restaurants that opened in
the 70's attracted adventurous diners eager to explore the world's cuisines.
"We were serving North Indian tandoori, and we had a glass-enclosed
kitchen," said Mr. Sehgal, who opened Indian Oven in 1975. "It was a total
performance drama."

In a way, Indian restaurants were victims of their own success. As more
opened around New York, they could not be sustained by the small pool of
trained Indian chefs, so immigrants with little cooking experience were
hired.

"They were unskilled chefs, people in professions unrelated to food, but
they needed jobs and the owners didn't care, they needed bodies," said Suvir
Saran, a restaurant consultant, caterer and teacher. "Bad recipes became
institutionalized."

What's more, many restaurants that called themselves Indian were in fact
owned and operated by Bangladeshis, like most of the Indian restaurants that
line East Sixth Street in the East Village. "I realized that many chefs were
from Bangladesh and were cooking foods that they had not grown up eating,"
Mr. Saran said. "I would ask them, `Why don't you cook the foods you know?'
And they would say the owners don't think it is right."

Like the sham Chinese restaurants that toss a handful of chili peppers atop
chicken and call it Sichuan, many Indian restaurants came to serve poor
facsimiles of authentic dishes. "It was more of a bland kind of food," said
Mr. Tolani of Mirchi. "That's what they thought Americans wanted."

Perhaps Americans did want that, at one time, but tastes evolved in the
1990's. Whether traveling to India or to London, where Indian restaurants
are as British as a pint in a pub, many Americans have had more
opportunities to sample Indian dishes in their full aromatic glory. And
they've begun to understand that India, like Italy and China, has no single,
monolithic cuisine. Instead, Indian food comprises many different styles of
cooking, each a product of regional influences, from the fiery vegetarian
dishes of the south to the Portuguese- influenced Goan cooking of the west
to the more familiar Mogul food of the north.

Of course, anybody who really wanted good Indian food could find it in
Indian neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, while taxi driver
hole-in-the-walls like the Eat Again Deli in Chelsea offer unusual
specialties like makai ki roti, a grainy cornmeal flatbread, though in
less-than-comfortable surroundings.

New excitement arrived in Manhattan in the early and mid-90's, when southern
Indian restaurants like Madras Mahal, Mavalli Palace and Pongal began
opening around Lexington Avenue in the 20's, serving two- foot-long masala
dosas, crepes stuffed with potatoes and onions, which were visually
astounding and delicious.

For old-timers like Mr. Sehgal and Mr. Gupta, expanding the repertory of the
Indian kitchen is partly a matter of national pride, but also a question of
survival.

"I was getting worried about the tikka masala thing," Mr. Sehgal said. "You
have to position yourself with something different when the competition is
increasing."

So, over the years, Mr. Sehgal has added regional dishes to his menu. Now,
he serves dosas from southern India; safed maas, lamb or chicken cooked with
green chilies and coconut, from Rajasthan in the northwest; and subtle,
delicate dum pukhts from the northeast, in which lamb, chicken and
vegetables are cooked in a sealed vessel.

"Across the board, people are responding to regionalism," said Michael
Batterberry, a founder of Food Arts magazine.

Many people who know little about Indian food have been willing to try
Tabla, the Indian-fusion restaurant, where the high- end comforts and the
Danny Meyer imprimatur allay fears of the unfamiliar.

"When we opened three years ago, a lot of people said they didn't like
Indian food," said Floyd Cardoz, the chef at Tabla. "They'd say, `Where's
the chicken masala?' not realizing that there are 36 different Indian
states, each with at least three cuisines."

Nonetheless, Mr. Cardoz, who came to the United States from India in 1989,
says that Americans are willing to try new dishes. What's more, he adds, as
Indians themselves see the improvements in Indian restaurants, they, too,
are going out more, which in turn raises the bar for restaurants. "With
these smaller restaurants opening up, I'm very excited about Indian cuisine
and where it's going," Mr. Cardoz said.

Few places illustrate the changing face of Manhattan's Indian restaurants
like Banjara, which opened several months ago in the East Village. From its
corner perch at First Avenue and Sixth Street, it anchors one end of the
end-to-end block of Indian restaurants that gained popularity in the 80's.
But nobody would say that Banjara gets its food from the mythical single
kitchen that supplies the others.

The chef, Tuhin Dutta, who studied at the French Culinary Institute,
experiments with fusion dishes like sharabi kababi, chicken marinated in
wine and served with prunes. For more traditional fare, Mr. Dutta offers
Goan-style chicken with roasted coconut, and dum pukhts, a specialty of the
northeastern city of Lucknow, fragrant chunks of chicken or lamb in a
velvety beige sauce, served in copper vessels covered with a skin of pastry.
And if you want to remember why people once flocked to Banjara's Sixth
Street neighbors, the tandoori- cooked chicken and lamb are superb.


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