Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Adventures in "Curry Hill": From Fine Dining to Lunch Buffets

I can honestly say that Indian food is one of my favorite ethnic cuisines.  I could eat it daily (and I have) and not get sick of it.  Once up on a time, I worked on a television show about a popular family with yellow-hued skin (think O.J.'s last name).  Like with other television shows, the staff and crew was provided with free lunch daily, but unlike other shows in Hollywood, our show was so popular (and made so much money for the network), that we had a pretty ridiculous budget for lunch.  There were days when we'd spend over $700 at a restaurant for takeout, in addition to getting food from the commissary as well.  It was glorious being able to order as much food as we wanted, and since I often had control of where we ordered from (one of the few perks of being a lowly production assistant) sometimes on Fridays I would plan on ordering from one of my favorite Indian restaurants in LA (the staff loved it too).  I would order two of everything I liked, enjoy some of it for lunch on Friday, reheat some for dinner that night, then have more for lunch and dinner on Saturday, and maybe even Sunday if it lasted.  And this is how I lived on the meager wages I made working in Hollywood, in case you were wondering.  The point of the story is, I can eat Indian food for several meals a day, many days in a row, and I never tire.  I've also eaten at lots of different Indian restaurants around the country, so I think I'm pretty good at deciphering the good from the bad :)

The photos above were taken at Kalustyan's, an incredible specialty market in the same neighborhood as the following Indian restaurants.  It features thousands of spices (including 30 varieties of whole and dried chilies), tons of rices, lentils, flours, almost anything you can think of buying in an Indian/Middle Eastern/Asian/etc market.  The first time I walked in, I almost fell over from the sheer power of it all, haha.  If you're in the area, I highly recommend stopping in.

Nirvana Indian Culinary Bliss
346 Lexington Ave
(between 39th St & 40th St)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 983-0000

By calling your restaurant "Nirvana" and additionally "Culinary Bliss," you must be pretty sure of yourself.  I had purchased a Restaurant.com gift certificate for Nirvana a while back and finally got an opportunity to use it.  Nirvana is located in the Murray Hill neighborhood in Manhattan, which many locals refer to as "Curry Hill" because for many blocks in any direction, the sidewalks are lined with Indian restaurants as far as the eye can see.  For someone who loves Indian food as much as I do, this neighborhood is where it's at.  Restaurants range from hole in the wall eateries to fine dining establishments, vegetarian restaurants to those that serve chicken to goat and everything in between.  When I saw the prices at Nirvana, I pretty much decided up front that my review was going to start out by saying it's overpriced.  But let's not go there just yet.  Curries here cost from the upper teens for chicken to the low twenties for seafood.  That's not unusual for entrees with those proteins at other restaurants, but to me that seems a little steep for curry.  But let's hold off on judgment.  I want to talk about this restaurant first, and then we can decide if the prices are fair or not.

Nirvana features a bar and lounge on the first floor, perfect for hosting parties, while the second floor is the actual dining room, which is quite large.  Red chairs, white linens, and brick walls serve for a vibrant, yet elegant ambiance.  I didn't really realize that this was an Indian fine dining restaurant until I got there and was served an amuse bouche.  It was a small corn and potato fritter served with tamarind sauce.  It was plated on a giant dish, which made the serving look smaller (and also cuter?).  It was delicious, crispy out the outside, fluffy inside with bits of sweet corn, and of course the delicious tamarind sauce, my personal favorite.  We were also served a basket of crispy pappadams with three sauces: mango chutney, raw onion chutney, and tamarind sauce.  We only ate a little because we wanted to save room for the rest of our meal.

Amuse Bouche - Corn and Potato Fritter with Tamarind Sauce

Pappadams with Mango Chutney, Raw Onion Chutney, and Tamarind Sauce

We ordered a couple appetizers to start.  The Vegetable Samosas are a no-brainer in any Indian restaurant.  They are a crowd-pleaser, they are fried (fried = awesome) and they are rarely bad.  These were no exception, nice and big with a crispy dough on the outside and fluffy warm potato and pea filling on the inside.  Good samosas, check!  We also tried the Gobi Manchurian, a dish of fried cauliflower dressed in a sauce of garlic, scallions, and soy (as advertised) and also tomato from what we could tell.  It was a mixture of sweet, sour, and tangy with a bit of spice, and the slightly crusty, piping hot and perfectly tender cauliflower inside.  As a cauliflower lover (especially FRIED cauliflower) this dish was unique and a fun experiment that we were both very pleased with.

Vegetable Samosas $6

Gobi Manchurian - Roasted Garlic, Scallion, Soy Sauce Coated Crisp Cauliflower Florets $7

For entrees, my friend had the traditional Tandoori Chicken, while I went with my tried and true favorite Chicken Tikka Masala.  Our entrees came with basmati rice, and we ordered some naan as well.  The Chicken Tikka Masala was not the best I've had, but it was better than some of the versions I've had the displeasure of trying in the past.  My only complaint is that it was very tomatoey.  Usually, my favorites have more cream which balances out the tomato in the sauce, but this version wasn't heavy on the cream (I guess my waistline shouldn't complain), but it did make up for that by being well balanced with the spices.  If I were grading, I would give it a B+... not quite a perfect A, but way better than a C or D (sadly I've had some C or D Tikka Masalas in my life, even an F one time!).  In other words, I wouldn't come here for a Tikka Masala craving, I'd go somewhere else for that specific desire, and maybe order something different next time I'm here instead.  I did enjoy it overall, and brought home plenty of leftovers!  Gotta love that :)  The naan was also nice and fluffy and warm, not dry like some other bad naans I've gotten at other restaurants.  So far so good...

Tandoori Chicken - Traditional Style Classic Red Masala Marinade $16

Chicken Tikka Masala - Barbecued Chicken Breast Simmered in Creamy Tomato Sauce $18

Basmati Rice

Naan $4

We had to have dessert because my friend's favorite dessert is an Indian dessert, and I would never let down my friends :)  The dessert is called Gulab Jamun, which are light pastry dumplings made from dry milk in honey syrup.  They are simple fried balls with a somewhat crumbly inner texture moistened by the sweet syrup in which they are bathed.  Yum.  I can't blame my friend for loving this dessert!  It was a really nice way to finish our meal, and we both got to indulge in a little something sweet before heading out into the snowy city!

Gulab Jamun - Light Pastry Dumplings Made From Dry Milk in Honey Syrup $7

So here are my final thoughts on my experience at Nirvana.  Surprisingly, I didn't really feel ripped off at all after my dinner.  Maybe it was because my Restaurant.com gift certificate covered almost half of our meal, or maybe it was because the entire experience from beginning to end was truly quite pleasant!  One of my favorite dishes in the world (Chicken Tikka Masala) didn't blow me away, but was still delicious and better than 80% of the other Tikka Masalas that have let me down over the years.  Meanwhile, the other aspects of our meal from the other courses to the service and ambiance were up to par with what I would expect from a restaurant charging an average of $20 for curry.  If you think about it, a simple sandwich at T.G.I. Fridays in Times Square costs $20 (don't ask me how I know this, it was a truly scarring experience).  But why on Earth would you want to pay $20 for that crap when you can have the experience we had here, just blocks from Grand Central Station in our own little Nirvana.  I think you have your answer...

108 Lexington Ave
(between 27th St & 28th St)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 679-1284

Located just over 10 blocks south of Nirvana is yet another highly rated Indian spot in "Curry Hill."  In India, Dhabas are restaurants at truck stops along the highway, specializing in Punjabi food (many Indian truck drivers are Punjab).  Thus the term now refers to other restaurants that serve Punjabi food as well.  The regular menu prices at Dhaba are a few dollars shy of what Nirvana charges for the same items.  The setting is much smaller, and is funky, modern, and colorful.  It doesn't set up the same elegant ambiance that Nirvana strives to achieve, and the noise level here is much higher (lots of hustle bustle).  Especially at lunch.  I've discussed NYC lunch deals before, and Dhaba easily offers one of the best I've ever seen.  The lunch buffet is much talked about it, and an absolute steal at $9.95 Monday through Saturday (yes, Saturday too) and $12.95 for the Sunday buffet.

I normally hate buffets, not because I don't like variety, but because I prefer being served as opposed to serving myself (I am named after a Queen, you know!).  Dhaba is seriously an exception to my rule.  It's like Indian food Heaven.  Not only were there many options to choose from, but they were all good options!  On this particular day they were serving Jeera (cumin) Rice, Chicken Biryani, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Do Pyaza (lamb with onions), Chilly Paneer, Channa Saag (chickpeas in spinach sauce), Jeera Aloo (cumin potatoes), Dal Makhani ("buttered lentils" or creamy black lentils), and Kheer (rice pudding) along with various sauces and accompaniments.  I piled almost everything onto my plate (everything but the Chily Paneer and Jeera Aloo).

In addition to the great buffet options, servers bring you additional food to your table!  Included in the price of the buffet, you get a basket of warm, fluffy naan, and some kind of appetizer (I believe this changes daily).  On the day I went they brought me some Papri Chaat with Fried Lentils (basically fried crispies with yogurt, chutneys, and the lentils).  The coolness of the yogurt and the mint and cilantro flavors in the chutney were really refreshing between bites of my spicy curries.  Also the crunch was a great textural contrast to the other dishes I was having.  A server also came around serving pieces of Tandoori Chicken to patrons.  I tried a drumstick and thought it was nicely flavored and moist, a fun addition to my huge plate of food :)

Clockwise from Top: Chicken Biriyani, Channa Saag, Dal Makhani, Lamb Do Pyaza, Chicken Tikka Masala, Jeera Rice

Papri Chaat with Fried Lentils - Crunchies, Yogurt, Chutneys, and Fried Lentils


A feast!!  The small bowl to the left contains Raita which I poured over my Chicken Biryani :)
Tandoori Chicken

This was soooo much food, I couldn't even finish it, even though I really wanted to be that person who goes up for seconds, just because it's free.  I really enjoyed everything I had.  The biryani was spicy and really flavorful, definitely satisfied my biryani craving, but it did contain bones (from the chicken pieces) so beware of that if you have this.  I don't usually order saag dishes, but I thought the channa saag was a good contrast and a much mellower flavor (but not bland) than the spicier options on my plate.  It was a nice palate cleanser, haha.  The dal makhani is always a favorite, a dish of spicy black lentils (and I'm not kidding when I say spicy... not vindaloo-spicy, but it sure had a kick to it!).  The lamb do pyaza is basically a lamb curry with onions.  It's much milder than most of the other dishes they were serving, and was incredibly tender and delicious.  I happily could have eaten more of it if I had room in my stomach.  Finally, my ultimate favorite, the chicken tikka masala which I served over the rice.  It was fantastic, tender meat, nicely spiced sauce, well balanced, not greasy.  I preferred Dhaba's version to the one at Nirvana which was just a bit too tomatoey compared to what I'm used to.

Sadly left behind were 2 of 4 pieces of naan, some papri chaat, a little channa saag, a spoon or 2 of dal and a bit of raita. So stuffed!

I gave myself a short break and almost resigned myself to the fact that I just would not have room for dessert.  And then I got over it, went back to the buffet and helped myself to some of their rice pudding, haha!  And that's what you call will-power!  I didn't take too much, just a few spoonfuls, but I really enjoyed the sweet touch after all the spice.  The texture was nice, and I enjoyed a few bites of juicy raisins within.

Kheer (Rice Pudding)

I have to say, this was a really great experience for lunch!  I mean, the tables are really close together, the restaurant is pretty noisy, and you often bump into people going in and out of the buffet line, but for under $10 I'd do it in a New York minute!  The food was easily on par with my favorite Indian dishes I've had elsewhere, and it's a huge deal to partake in the buffet at lunch as opposed to ordering a la carte (the price of a single entree will cost considerably more than the entire buffet).  Best of all, they offer this deal on Saturdays as well, with a similar, but slightly pricier one on Sundays.  And... drum roll... they take reservations so don't worry about showing up on a Saturday (or any day) at lunch time and not getting a table (though when I was there all the walk-ins at lunch had no problem being seated promptly).  Service was fast and efficient, water was regularly poured, and the food kept coming and coming.  I highly recommend Dhaba's lunch buffet!  And the food is so good, I'd easily come back for dinner as well!

*Update 2/8/11*: I have since been back to Dhaba's lunch buffet and must confirm that it is just as fabulous as before.  The rice, chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala and lamb curry were the same, but the vegetarian dishes were all different... these included saag paneer, a different potato dish, a different dal, and Bhuni Gobi Mattar (cauliflower and peas) which I totally fell in love with (I really appreciate the great variety of vegetarian dishes they offer for people who aren't meat-eaters).  They still came around to the tables serving tandoori chicken, and this time it was redder in hue, and probably more traditional than the one they served last time.  Dessert was also different, a carrot halawa.  The free appetizer was thin, battered and fried eggplant slices served with sauces.  Everything was incredibly flavorful as before!  On this visit, I brought a friend who wasn't eating meat, and even though it only slightly limited her selections (barely!), we both loved our food and thought everything was delicious and just spicy enough without being over the top, perfect for the average Indian food-lover.  I can't recommend Dhaba's lunch buffet enough...

Baigun Bhaja (Fried Eggplant)

Selections from the buffet including lamb curry, bhuni gobi mattar, dal, chicken tikka masala over rice, and chicken biriyani with raita, plus a chicken tandoori drumstick

Carrot Halawa 


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