Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lost on Curry Row - New York City Entry #6

Looking for mid-range Indian cuisine, six of us journeyed to Curry Row in the East Village. Diners who seek the diversity of South Asian cuisine of Chicago's Devon Avenue must travel further afield to Jackson Heights, but 6th Street, a short walk from NYU, serves in a pinch.

Haute Indian cuisine has now made its mark at such Western restaurants as New York's earnest Tabla and London's astonishing Chutney Mary. But 6th Street tames Indian food for a broader New York dining public.

We selected Banjara, a restaurant with good reports in Zagat's, named after the people from the Rajasthan region of Northwestern India (capital city Jaipur), which, the menu announces is known for colorful clothes and fine jewelry. Unlike other restaurants in "Little India" Banjara eschew the tiresome red Christmas lights that twinkle at passers-by along the block. In contrast, Banjara is festooned with colorful wallcloths, and mirror fragments embedded in the ceiling and walls. For a modest decorating budget, Banjara is a pleasant space.

Each restaurant along 6th Street has its own style and its own chef (Abu Ahmed at Banjara, no longer the highly regarded Tuhin Dutta), even if one might fantasize that somewhere in the bowels of Curry Row a bustling central commissary produce recognizable dishes. Banjara, to be fair, goes beyond the usual suspects of Indian cuisine, with mixed results. The appetizers, particularly the somosas and the murgi shaslik kebab (marinated chicken) seemed most ordinary and rather dry, although the onion bhaji (onions deep-fried in a chick pea batter) was more creative, tasting like potato pancakes as translated in Delhi.

Our six entrees included two that I judged excellent: the creamy and tropical Shrimp Pappas (shrimp in spicy coconut sauce with curry leaves and smoked tamarind; one of the specials of the evening) and the hearty vegetarian Bay Goon Ka Koon (pureed whole eggplant, pureed with fresh onions and tomatoes). In contrast the Chicken Biriyani was uninteresting, dry, and less complexly spiced than often found. Similarly dry was the Banjara Karahi, a local dish that consisted of overcooked pieces of lamb (cooked in "very high heat") with tomatoes, onion, green pepper and assorted herbs and spices.

The Chicken Balti, another local dish from the Northwestern frontier was much better with a definitive taste of coriander and a complexity of other Indian spices. The Pasanda Lamb was a suitable, if not striking, dish of marinated lamb in a yogurt-curry sauce.

The evening's surprise was the red plastic ring (harvested from a milk container) that my son discovered in his lamb. No persuasion could convince him that Indians serve a curried stew borrowed from La Galette des Rois, Mardi Gras' King Cake. Banjara, I suggested, was touchingly honoring the battered residents on the Gulf. Another remarkable idea that required the proper audience.

With several regional dishes and a decor that surpasses their neighbors, Banjara deserves some applause. Yet, Banjara can not be classed as a destination spot for either haute and authentic Indian cuisine. And, as my son would stress, sometimes the best surprise is no surprise.

97 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003

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