No need to tamper with the spice. These restaurateurs want to serve real Indian food in America
“No one would buy it,” Mazumdar said. “I remember lots going badly, and after two weeks we were like, ‘Why are we wasting? You might as well make chicken tikka masala. ”
When he and chef Chintan Pandya opened Rahi in Greenwich Village in 2017, Mazumdar thought they needed to be contemporary, serving truffle khichdi and smoked salmon chaat. The place was less about showcasing Indian food and more about following culinary trends, Mazumdar said.
But with the openings of Adda in Long Island City in 2018 and Dhamaka on the Lower East Side in February, the partners stopped trying to adhere to an existing narrative and began writing their own. They bring the bold regional flavors of India to the fore, rather than hiding them behind truffles or tikka masala.
A number of restaurants, like Ghee Indian Kitchen in Miami and Besharam in San Francisco, have gained followers for their focus on regional Indian cuisine. But few have done it on the scale Mazumdar and Pandya aspire to.
From the aromatic Lucknow-style goat-necked biryani in Adda to the spirited pork and herb-laden Meghalayan doh khleh in Dhamaka, the food at these restaurants speaks with exclamation marks. Both locations received rave reviews from critics, and Pandya received a James Beard Award nomination in 2020.
‘Dahi Puri’ at Masalawala in New York. (Image: Masalawala.com)
As the country reopens, Mazumdar, 38, and Pandya, 41, are planning aggressive expansion in New York this year. It will include two quick and casual restaurants in the East Village, Kebabwala and Rowdy Rooster; a new location and menu for Masalawala; and a reinvented Rahi, inspired by the heritage of new chef Vijay Kumar. Adda will also be moving to a larger location about a mile away and plans to get her liquor license.
The ultimate goal of the partners is to expand well beyond New York.
“Until we really reach the heart of the country,” said Mazumdar, “I don’t think we can really take Indian cuisine forward.”
But opening an Indian restaurant is complicated. Americans expect to pay less for a tandoori paneer than a burrata salad and to dictate the level of spiciness, Pandya said.
“Did you go home and ask your mother, ‘Can you make a chicken, on a scale of 1-10 spice levels, a 5?’ ” he said.
“We stop this idea of satisfying all other people except the Indian palace,” Mazumdar added.
Pandya has long wanted to launch a fast, casual Indian restaurant with national reach and takes inspiration from popular New York City taqueria, Los Tacos No. 1. (Curry Up Now is a successful Indian street food restaurant with locations Across the country. )
“It’s a phenomenal product,” he said of No. 1 Los Tacos.
The first of the team’s quick and casual eateries, the fried chicken-centric Rowdy Rooster, opens in August on First Avenue and Ninth Street. Pandya studies the many Indian iterations of fried chicken, from pakoras to Chicken 65, a spicy snack believed to originate from a Chennai hotel. A month later, Kebabwala on Second Avenue and Fifth Street will focus on classic kebab preparations like chicken tikka and seekh kebabs.
In Rahi, 39-year-old Kumar, who was most recently the chef at Rasa in Burlingame, Calif., Will present a menu of regional South Indian dishes in September. He grew up in Natham, a village in Tamil Nadu, with dishes like maan kari, game coconut, curry leaves, cilantro, cumin and star anise; and blood poriyal, made by cooking nutrient-rich goat blood with turmeric, cumin, lentils, and coconut. He said he wanted to show diners that South Indian food is more than just dosa and idli.
Opened in November, the renovated Masalawala in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifth Street, will venture into retail, selling staples like basmati and atta, as well as mixtures of spices and sauces. It will also offer an all-day menu of regional Indian comfort foods, like pigeon chettinad seasoned with star anise and cilantro, and patrani macchi, a parsi dish of fish steamed in a banana leaf.
“There have been two very specific angles to Indian cuisine” in restaurants, Mazumdar said. “One side has been this idea of high-end cuisine, which must automatically be made with foreign ingredients”, the other “the generalization of Indian cuisine”.
Building a deeper understanding of Indian cuisine among all Americans won’t happen with just one group of restaurants, he said.
But maybe they can make the path a little easier for the next Indian restaurant.