I’ve always had a thing for Indian food, but living here in Minnesota, there just aren’t that many options other than a host of buffets (mainly for lunch) and none I’ve yet discovered that approach anything unique or special. Not that I’m a fine dining snob…..you all know better than that.
Now, Joanne and I have never been to India. And to be honest, I’m not that certain that I want to go. Several of our friends, who are seasoned travelers, report WILDLY MIXED and OPPOSING REVIEWS. Some wax passionately about the richness of the culture, history and landmarks.
Others can’t get past the rampant poverty and all the problems that come along with it. It’s said that if you have money – and ONLY if you have money – you can indulge in some of the world’s best hotels, equal to anything in New York, London, Bangkok or Hong Kong. You can also journey luxuriously by train (think THE ORIENT EXPRESS on steroids)…all of which insulate you from the conditions endured by many millions of India’s citizens. Even then, however, the country’s harsh realities present themselves. Yes, your hotel has state-of-the-art environmental protection, but step outside in a city like Delhi, and you’ll breathe air more polluted even than that of Beijing or Mexico City.
Will we ever visit India? I don’t know…I just don’t know.
But if I go, it’ll be for the food, because Joanne and I have been fortunate enough to experience really wonderful, stylish, clever and creative Indian cuisine, especially in London, where the huge influx of Indians and Pakistanis over the last several decades has created one of the richest dining scenes imaginable.
Our first experience was 25 years ago at the BOMBAY BRASSERIE, known for its bright and airy conservatory. This South Kensington restaurant is still a delight – and it’s still going strong.
More recently in London we’ve enjoyed AMAYA (in Belgravia), where dining theater is provided by three brass-clad Tandoori ovens right out front. The food here is outstanding – so good, in fact, that you can forgive the staff’s pompous attitude. We also love CHUTNEY MARY, now in St. James Place. The dining room here isn’t as dramatic as its old location on Kings Road in Chelsea, but the food is still as good. Keep CINNAMON CLUB (a little stuffy….but good) on your radar screen as well. Ditto for JAMAVAR on Mount Street in Mayfair. This is the first outpost of an acclaimed Indian chain, and it’s a knockout (If you go, request table #16 for two, in the corner).
Up until the last five years or so, New York didn’t seem to have much to offer in the way of interesting Indian cuisine.
But good news….we’ve discovered two possibilities that you might enjoy. The first is TAMARIND in Tribeca (check out my mention in my November 8th, 2016 posting, “LITTLE SPROUTS in the BIG APPLE”). I’ll do a major posting on TAMARIND in the next several weeks.
The other place that challenges Tamarind is JUNOON (pronounced U-NOON; I’m told that the name means “passion”). This Michelin-starred restaurant boasts a handsome, contemporary dining room lit in soft amber tones. These days, it’s considered un-PC to refer to cultures and countries from beyond our shores as “exotic,” so I’ll describe Junoon as worldly and intriguing, but its location actually IS kind of exotic: on a dark stretch of 24th Street just west of 5th Avenue.
The chef, Vikas Khanna, comes from Amritsar in the Punjab region of northwestern India, a tourist mecca and home of the GOLDEN TEMPLE.
The lengthy menu celebrates five distinct Indian cooking techniques:
TANDOOR….”white-hot” clay oven
SIGRI…open fire pit
Our evening began with baskets of salty, buttery, garlicky NAAN plucked fresh from the white-hot walls of the Tandoori ovens and accompanied by a selection of exotic chutneys. Appetizers included a sharing dish of TANDOORI OCTOPUS with black garlic aioli, crispy potatoes and citrus wedges ($22). Another hit was EGGPLANT CHAAT, spicy hot crispy eggplant with tamarind chutney and – for those who can’t stand the heat – a cooling RAITA (yogurt, cucumber and mint) at $15. Another offering, not for the “faint-of-heart,” that we loved – and you should definitely try – was Tandoori chicken thighs and cashews and peppers called GHOST CHILI MURGH TIKKA (you probably know that the GHOST PEPPER beats out HABANEROS on the SCOVIL HEAT SCALE)… extra bowls of RAITA!…please !!…quickly !!!…now dammit !!!!! BTW, service was professional, polite and efficient.
Spices are so central to Indian cuisine that JUNOON has installed a special glass enclosed room on the lower level that’s used solely for the daily grinding and storing of spices. Ask your server and you’ll be escorted downstairs for a peek.
LAMB CHOPS were a real treat – effectively “tricked-out” with sweet potato puree, charred pineapple and Swiss chard ($39), as was a vegetarian dish called HARA PANEER KOFTA with mustard greens, paneer dumplings, preserved lemon relish and green chili for an extra kick (or should I say wallop?) at $23.
JUNOON IS NOT BLAND!!!!!
Now comes dessert, including a trio of seasonal KULFI (Indian ice cream); SAFFRON PHRINI, a Punjab treat of mango, rice, sugar and milk; and FALOODA, a sweet and creamy treat with strawberries, vanilla ice cream, rose syrup and pink peppercorn foam.
While Junoon’s meal enders were uniformly delightful (except for one medicinally flavored green ice cream), they’re somewhat out of the mainstream as western desserts go. In fact, they’re out of the mainstream compared to most Indian desserts. Wasn’t it food writer Calvin Trillin who observed that the preponderance of them “tend to have the texture of face cream?”
Does the POND’S INSTITUTE have a culinary branch in India????
Maybe so……maybe so…..