Fourteen aspirants, some of whom wouldn't look out of place at Tao or Buddakan in the Meatpacking District, are standing outside Babu Ji, a casual Indian joint on Avenue B. The prospective guests are milling about, smoking, complaining. "We were told we'd be next," someone shouts. The chef, who's doubling as the de facto bouncer, apologizes, and hands out cards for discounted drinks at Maiden Lane, a hip bar nearby that specializes in hand-canned sardines. "Do you want to come in and eat or are you still upset?" the chef asks an unhappy bloke whose table is finally ready. Inside, a projector shows Bollywood movies; staffers sing happy birthday; patrons queue up for the solo restroom; aromas of cumin waft through the air; Fanta-colored cauliflower leaves the kitchen; and waiters, within a minute of your being seated, tell you to help yourself to the beer fridge, a suggestion that's more apt for a frat party than the very good restaurant that Babu Ji is. Just roll with it.
Your amuse is a single gol gappe, a spherical chickpea crisp filled with yogurt, tamarind, and chile. It collapses in the mouth with all the ease of a communion wafer. The sourness hits first. Then comes the heat. And that's when you walk up to the self-serve beer fridge. It contains 24 varieties of ale, maybe more.
What's good? "I only know Kingfisher, an Indian beer," the waiter replies. Perhaps beer fridges should come with beer sommeliers. I reach for a McKenzie's cider (hint of sweetness), and a staffer magically appears to crack it open with a corkscrew. Another night, as I'm walking a (floral, citrusy) Tank Farmhouse back to the table, a manager shucks off the cap with his thumb ring. Such impromptu bottle service is Babu Ji's contribution to the New York hospitality canon. Waiters open brewskis with the same diligence that a fine dining captain might pull out your chair or re-fold your napkin. And whenever the capsicum-based pain of the excellent butter chicken sets in, the restaurant empowers patrons to seek relief via the fluorescent-lit ice box and its palliative, intoxicating contents. Right on.
There is no lack of good South Asian food in the greater New York City area – from Midtown's Pakistani cabbie buffets, with their polychromatic daals and meats in crimson oil, to Curry Hill's Southern Indian spots, with their shiny, gossamer dosas, to Jersey's City's Gujarati hangouts, bastions of vegetarian bliss, to Flatiron's Michelin-starred Junoon, with its crystal clear spices (and high prices). But Babu Ji, perhaps more than any of its peers, deserves credit for making a lot of us excited about Indian food for the first time since Floyd Cardoz opened Tabla with Danny Meyer in 1998.
Owners Jennifer Singh, and her chef-husband, Jessi, who ran a trio of Indian spots in South Australia before moving to Alphabet City, don't bend the rules as hard as Cardoz; there's no bacon naan or duck samosas. But the food can sometimes boast levels of refinement, balance, and creativity that one wouldn't normally expect at a cramped, noisy, hard-to-get-into hangout where most everything's under $20.
The food can sometimes boast levels of refinement, balance, and creativity that one wouldn't normally expect in a space like this.
Babu Ji abides by The Momofuku Way. It espouses a lean menu of ambitious yet affordable fare in a striped-down setting, and it applies that ethos to a cuisine (Indian) whose popularity at times seems limited by the overly formal rooms in which it's served and the never-ending menus that advertise it.
Potato croquettes (aloo tiki) are not an uncommon Indian dish. Singh, of course, tweaks things a bit, whipping his potatoes to a silkier state, adding a hint of lobster for depth of flavor, and finishing the affair with a fragrant cilantro puree. There you have it, one of New York's finest knishes. Roasted paneer dumplings (they look like giant vegetarian chicken nuggets), evoke the tight balance of flavors one might expect at a Michelin-starred Thai spot like Pok Pok: the richness of farmer's cheese is offset by a pool of beetroot yogurt and shards of crisp apple. And then the heat comes, slowly but surely, a product of green chile laced into the crimson sauce.
That heat grows even stronger in the gobi Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese dish that involves deep frying florets and coating them in an agrodolce chile sauce. Singh, taking a few liberties and winking toward American poultry sensibilities, tops the vegetable with sesame seeds and calls it Colonel Tso's cauliflower. The result is a vegan dish packing tons more flavor than the saccharine takeout mainstay made from commodity chicken. Bonus: Singh tells me he might do an Indo-Chinese pop-up one night, serving Manchurian curries, momos, spring rolls, and Indian spiced noodles.
Any meats cooked in the tandoor are precisely what they should be — hot and juicy —from tender Murray's chicken breasts to barely-cooked-through prawns (with their aromatic heads still attached) to nutmeg marinated lamb chops.
Tandoori breads balance vaguely charred exteriors with soft, stretchy interiors. Winter paratha is the hidden gem in this category, employing chiles and bitter daikon to keep the natural sweetness of the dough from getting out of hand. Use the bread to snatch up mounds of butter chicken, a dish that too often mimics Campbell's runny cream of tomato soup; here, the gravy is denser, evoking the rich overtones of a Michael White pasta sauce. Or take a swatch of garlic naan and dunk it in a brilliantly sour Punjabi kadhi, a yellow witch's cauldron of yogurt, turmeric, lemon juice, and spinach-onion pakoras.
Milk curd doughnuts, in an aggressively sweet syrup (as is appropriate, my subcontinental friends assert), is the right pairing for a cup of masala chai, black tea spiked with a warming mix of ginger, cardamom, and fennel seed. And since that beverage is somewhat ubiquitous in concentrate form at corner coffee shops, let me add: Babu Ji's version is better. Also above average is the cardamom kulfi (condensed milk ice cream on a stick); I watch as a lady in a red dress stands and walks outside with the frozen treat in hand, as if the restaurant were simply a booth in a larger state fair.
One last note: Babu Ji recently switched to a tip-free system, following in the footsteps of Bruno, Dirt Candy, and soon, all of Danny Meyer's restaurants. The house adds a 16 percent administrative fee to every check. "We pay all of our staff a livable wage," the website reads. It's a laudable decision that should ensure a better living for cooks, who often make less than servers and bartenders. But since Babu Ji has taken pains to espouse such a progressive policy, allow me to suggest another avant-garde idea: actually picking up the phone when patrons call up. It would be nice to know how long the wait is.
Cost: All dishes at $25 or under. Tasting at $50.
Sample dishes: Lobster tikki, Colonel Tso's cauliflower, beetroot paneer, tandoori prawns, Punjabi Kadhi.
Bonus tip: Reservations are only accepted for the $50 tasting. Walk-ins should come early or come late.