Currying Favor

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.


Somehow
Indian restaurants slipped into a no-fun zone of supersized copper cups
and bowls that served overpriced rice and brick-red chicken. Instead of
being able to pop out for a quick, inexpensive curry, as the Brits love
to do, we were saddled with the silly stuffiness of faux elegance that
emerged decades ago and decided to stick around. Some folks still enjoy
the bland experience of scanning the repeated list of
saags and masalas, just
as they never tire of cloying sesame chicken and General Tso’s with
clumps of white rice. I also love the creamy comfort chicken tikka
masala, however I’m often disappointed that it’s difficult to find
something better than the same colonial curries.

Shiva
Natarajan, the owner of Dhaba (as well as several other upscale Indian
joints), located in the middle of Curry Hill, fancies it’s time for an
attitude adjustment. The bright spot on Lexington Avenue
(betw. E. 27th & 28th Sts.) is all flash and brilliance.Walk into
the front room, and you feel as if you’re sitting in a mod design
showroom or a boutique hotel’s lively lounge rather than a rickety
restaurant. A dhaba is actually a roadside food stand in India, but
we’re not talking low-end offerings; instead it’s an exciting
re-education on how to enjoy Indian cuisine.

First, there’s
the lengthy menu that includes over a hundred items.You’ll find fave
Brit-style curries and your typical kebabs, but this is a chance to
finally explore new terrain:
So ask the friendly waiters to assist— they’re glad to.

We weren’t
adventurous enough for the Paya Soup ($4.95), made from goat trotters
and ginger, but we couldn’t pass up the sound of Lasoni Gobi
($6.95).The plate of batter-fried cauliflower was tossed in a tangy red
sauce with some serious garlic and onions. It may be our favorite new
dish and has been the main reason for wanting to return. A plate of
lime-flavored chicken wings ($6.95), though an excellent substitution
for worn-out Buffalo wings, couldn’t quite compare.

It
would take months of diligent devouring to exhaust the possibilities of
meat-centric choices (we’re especially interested in the Bater
Masaledaar: quail cooked with cumin, tomatoes, ginger, onions and fresh
coriander, $16.95), but part of the fun is in the experimentation that
rarely goes wrong.

We were interested in the Goat Rogan Josh
(it sounds like a middle school role player’s name, right?) but were
unsure if we wanted goat, so our waiter was happy to sub it with
lamb.The goat-turned-lamb curry was passable, but we still couldn’t
forget our cauliflower, so we focused in on more and more veggie
dishes.

Our waiter was very good about positive affirmations
in our choices, and if he felt we were going astray, he’d try to lead
us back on track. Like when we stumbled upon Bharwan Karela ($10.95).

“That is bitter gourd,” our waiter restated.

“Are
you sure you want to try?” “Why, is it bad?” I asked.

“No, not bad,
it’s just very bitter. It’s something that you must grow up with. It’s
very bitter,” he explained. “Even I cannot always enjoy bitter gourd.”

“Is
it because we’re too white? We can’t handle the bitter gourd?” I asked,
sensing a challenge.

“No, no. But it is…it has a very particular
taste,” he warned. “It is like, sometimes used when you are sick,
mothers prepare it.”

I imagined some noxious, medicinal taste, but I
refused to be deterred. If this is a Punjabi specialty that only locals
could love, we at least had to see if we could master it.

We ordered it
along with Sarson Ka Saag ($12.95), spinach and mustard greens, and
Kadai Bhindi ($12.95), okra with bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and
onions.

Perhaps they toned it down for us, but the promised
repellent gourd was tasty, with plenty of familiar spices all cooked in
a pleasant muddle. It was impossible to finish since we’d already
munched on so much abundance, but it even worked later as leftovers,
when my unsuspecting partner gobbled it up the following night.

The
snazzy setup, which has been open since the fall, seems to be taking
off. On a Wednesday night, cute young couples filled the room with
animated chatter.There was none of the white-glove pretension, and
although prices are a bit more expensive than some of the nearby
alternatives, it felt preferable to sit amidst the vibrant colors and
comfy banquettes and tables.We’re not totally sold on the $9.95 lunch
buffet since so many excellent buffets nearby are offered for less, but
spoon-to-serving spoon battles at the chaffing dishes are less likely
here. And if Dhaba can make dishes stuffed with garlic and onions seem
sexy, we say go for it.

> Dhaba

108 Lexington Ave. (betw. E. 27th & E. 28th Sts.), 212-679-1284 or 212-336-3567

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