Critic’s Notebook: For Casual Indian Restaurants, It’s Party Time


None of the second-generation places go quite as hard as Babu Ji. But there is Hindi hip-hop at Badshah, in Hell’s Kitchen, along with a spray-painted mural of tigers and skyscrapers by Carl Joseph Gabriel, and drinks served in canning jars. At Rahi, in Greenwich Village, surreal and cartoonlike figures by the street-art duo Yok and Sheryo crawl along the walls, and there’s more high-energy work in the back from a New Delhi gallery of emerging Indian artists. Flowers and sprouts are rampant.


The restaurant aRoqa, in Chelsea, has the shadowy lighting and sleek design of a cocktail lounge. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

Over in Chelsea, aRoqa is the most cosmopolitan of the bunch, with moody cocktail-bar lighting and a swooping ceiling of bent wooden slats. The chef, Gaurav Anand, lightens the mood by serving rice-and-corn cakes in the luggage compartment of a tiny carrier tricycle. Dry ice makes an appearance, as do squeezable syringes, for injecting various chutneys into molded drums of paneer. Needless to say, there will be flowers.

Old Monk, which took over Babu Ji’s original space in the East Village, is decorated with a different set of photographic portraits of men. This time they are monks from around Asia; one is taking a picture and another is holding a smartphone to his ear. The beer fridge is gone, but there is a long beer list, drawn from the more mainstream wing of the craft-brewing movement, like Fat Tire, Flying Dog, etc. (The wine list takes more chances.)

One of Babu Ji’s more clever innovations is offering a $62 fixed-price package of dishes as a tasting menu. It’s not a true tasting menu in the style of, say, Blanca, but the term has cachet with modern diners, who end up trusting the kitchen to choose what turns out to be a well-rounded, traditional family-style meal.


At aRoqa, they try to inject fun into the proceedings by serving corn cakes, called paddu, in the back of a tiny tricycle. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

Old Monk has kept this idea, in a $55, four-course dinner called You’re in Good Hands. I didn’t try it, because my head was turned by the rest of Navjut Arora’s menu: fine pork-stuffed Tibetan momos with a ferocious garlic-chile sambal; tandoori lamb chops marinated in rum and ginger; a slow-cooked dal of mixed lentils that is inspired by Sikh temple cooking and is very delicious.

Badshah’s chef, Charles Mani, used to cook at Babu Ji, and even claims to have come up with its General Tso’s Cauliflower, a spin on the classic Chinese-Indian fried cauliflower in chile sauce. In his new job, he calls it Badshah Cauliflower. I’ve eaten just one quick dinner at Badshah so far, and while I was content with the Kashmiri-style goat curry, I was less thrilled by the refrigerator-cold sauces spooned over hot potato croquettes.


Some restaurants evoke India through modern photography; others, like Rahi, use work by contemporary artists. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

The most exciting food in this group, I think, belongs to Rahi. Chintan Pandya, the chef, trained under chefs from the Oberoi hotel group, and comes to Rahi from Junoon, where he was executive chef. The cooking isn’t as consistent from night to night as it should be, and Mr. Pandya can sometimes follow his creative impulses right over the cliff; my initial skepticism about tandoori lamb chops smeared with wasabi did not melt away when I tasted it.


The Tulsi Chicken appetizer at Rahi is coated with a fresh basil sauce. Note the flowers. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

More often, the flavors are vivid and unexpected. With a chaat of fried artichoke hearts and edamame in a fruity and sour sauce of tamarind and pomegranate molasses, Mr. Pandya showed that he could infuse non-Indian ingredients with flavors that are very true to Indian cooking. There is a captivating appetizer of dark-meat chicken in a basil-chile sauce called Tulsi Chicken, and an inexplicably good snack of Melba toasts under chopped shishito peppers mixed with melted Amul cheese, a processed and highly shelf-stable product that’s everywhere in India. And I’m slightly in awe of his tandoori skate, a pristine hunk of fish cooked so it just slides off its cartilage and coated with a yogurt sauce so rife with cinnamon and cloves that it tastes like A.1. Sauce that some gifted cook had improved almost beyond recognition.

Over the weekend, I went to a new place that in some respects fits right in. The Bombay Bread Bar is a quick conversion of Floyd Cardoz’s SoHo restaurant Paowalla. I don’t have the nerve to call it a Baby Ji, though. Mr. Cardoz practically invented fun, casual, inexpensive Indian dining years ago at the old Bread Bar, below Tabla, and he brings some of his old tricks to his new place.


At Rahi, skate wing on the bone is roasted in the tandoor with a yogurt sauce spiked with cinnamon and cloves. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

But I can’t help noticing that the menu is easier to scan; that the cooking, as good as ever, has moved toward small, colorful plates; that the prices stand firmly in the middle ground; and that the drab, businesslike design of Paowalla has been engulfed by paper marigolds, fruit-patterned oilcloths and a mural painted in comics style by the Pakistani-raised Canadian artist Maria Qamar. I’m not quite sure what it depicts, but it looks like a pair of Bollywood actors.

aRoqa 206 Ninth Avenue (West 23rd Street), Chelsea; 646-678-5471;

Babu Ji 22 East 13th Street (University Place), Greenwich Village; 212-951-1082;

Badshah 788 Ninth Avenue (West 52nd Street), Hell’s Kitchen; 646-649-2407;

The Bombay Bread Bar 195 Spring Street (Sullivan Street), SoHo; 212-235-1098;

Old Monk 175 Avenue B (East 11th Street), East Village; 646-559-2922;

Rahi 60 Greenwich Avenue (Seventh Avenue), Greenwich Village; 212-373-8900;

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