Masala time: New York now has better food than London

Butter chicken at Adda. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Zack DeZon

It’s something I’ve suspected for several years and suggested sotto voce to friends, but now can say out loud: New York City has better Indian food than London.

I say this after a few dinners at Dhamaka. The latest collaboration between restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya is the ras-malai, the end-of-meal sweet, that rounds off the perfect maha-bhoj, or grand feast, of the city’s Indian dining options. I can drill down to a single dish that confirms New York’s primacy: the baked rabbit known as Rajasthani khargosh.

More about that later. For now, know there is nothing like it in London, or even New Delhi.

For decades, it has been the received wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic that the British capital has better Indian food than the Big Apple. But even when I lived in London in the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of Indian restaurants served slop: over-spiced, artificially colored curries churned out by men-and they were always men-who had never cooked a day in their lives until their arrival in Britain. The exceptions to the rule were at the high end of the market, where a dinner at Veeraswamy, say, might run north of $100 per person.

Since then, London’s food scene has changed beyond recognition, with a striking efflorescence of offerings from the Indian subcontinent. The wide gap between cheap-and-cheerful curry houses and Michelin-starred fine dining has been filled by a highly satisfying mix of midpriced eateries.

Some London chefs and food writers now make the triumphalist claim that their city can go toe-to-toe-or tawa-to-tawa-with Delhi and Mumbai, never mind New York. They point to the evolution of British tastes beyond culinary clichés such as tikka masala. Londoners have learned to love the bowl-shaped rice pancakes called hoppers in Sri Lanka or appams in the southern Indian state of Kerala; their fondness for bright-red meat curries has taken them beyond vindaloo to the laal maas of Rajasthan.

Darjeeling Express, easily my favorite London eatery, is a good example of the scores of restaurants now catering to adventuresome palates. Chef Asma Khan’s menu is a tribute to Bengal, where I was born, and Andhra Pradesh, where I grew up. Her prawn malaikari, a delicate coconut-milk gravy, tastes authentically of Kolkata, just as her khoobani ka meetha apricot dessert does of Hyderabad. A three-course dinner is just shy of $50 per person, hitting the variety-quality-price trifecta.

But wait, isn’t this article meant to argue for New York’s superiority over London?

It is, but know that the competition is close. Indeed, the likes of Gunpowder, another restaurant that specializes in authentic recipes from around India, brings the British capital nearer the New York average.

The key word is “average,” and it is important to recognize New York’s mathematical advantage. Whereas London has, by some reckoning, more Indian restaurants than New Delhi, New York has fewer than the typical midsize city in the subcontinent. This means, among other things, that competition for cooks is not as stiff in New York-certainly not to the extent that restaurant owners, desperate for kitchen staff, might hand aprons to farmers and construction workers fresh off the plane.

The Big Apple’s Indian food scene has threatened London’s since I arrived in the mid-2000s. You didn’t have to travel to the outer boroughs to find it: There were plenty of options on Lexington Ave in Murray Hill. Even the cheap eateries in Jackson Heights, Queens, were a cut above the curry houses of the equivalent London district, and I’d have wagered that the budget for food coloring was several-fold higher in Southall.

At the other end of the price spectrum, a small boom in Indian fine-dining establishments raised New York’s game. London had superstar Indian chefs in Vivek Singh and Vineet Bhatia, but New York had Floyd Cardoz and Jigar Mehta.

If London has closed the gap, New York is lengthening its stride. The new Sona reflects an elevation of ambition, aspiring to do for Indian food what Nobu did for Japanese cuisine. Restaurateur Maneesh Goyal has brought glamour to the fried chickpea snack golgappa, served there with avocado-infused tequila.

But it’s the smashing success of the Pandya-Mazumdar duo that shows New York’s supremacy. I have been stopped in my tracks by the cooking at the experimental dining room Rahi, and tongue-tied by Adda, which will move to a larger location in Long Island City in the fall. The duo have announced an expansion of their empire, including a kebab house in Manhattan’s East Village in September and a restaurant celebrating the foods of Mazamdur’s native Kolkata in Brooklyn.

Still, it’s Dhamaka that brings it home for New York.

The restaurants are, to use Mazumdar’s catchphrase, unapologetically Indian. For some, this conjures up sensations of eye-watering, ear-smoking spiciness, but for me, the ingredient that signifies authenticity in Indian food is not the masala but a meat-specifically, goat.

Goat represents much of India’s default red meat, although it is usually labeled “mutton” on menus outside the continent. Chefs tend to substitute aged lamb, but few adjust the spices, so they aren’t properly absorbed by the protein, which cooks try to correct by overcooking.

Pandya uses lamb only where the original recipe demands it, as in the Kashmiri-style tabak maaz fried ribs at Dhamaka. But there’s goat at all his restaurants, from the soft bheja (brain) fry at Adda to methi gosht (bone-in, with fenugreek) at Rahi and gurda kapura (testicles and kidneys) at Dhamaka.

Now that is what I call unapologetically Indian.

Finally, as promised, the Rajasthani rabbit, the jewel in New York’s Indian culinary crown. It’s marinated for 24 hours in a paste of red chilies, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and yogurt, then slow-cooked in a sealed clay pot. The falling-off-the-bone meat arrives with fixings-dal, cumin potatoes, a choice of breads (tip: take the roti over the heavier paratha), and rice. The $190 price tag might sound like a lot, but it easily feeds four. It’s a bargain, really.

Rabbit is rarely found on menus in India, or even in grocery stores. Most Indians will never taste rabbit in their lifetimes. Londoners, then, are not alone in missing out on this amazing dish. New Yorkers are just very, very lucky.



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