Eater critic Robert Sietsema gives a first glance to an Indian newcomer.
Once upon a time we had mainly Punjabi cuisine, a heavily gravied, meat-intensive collection of recipes from India’s far northwestern frontier. But gradually our culinary dance card has filled with other fascinating regional varieties, from the citified snacks of Mumbai to the mustardy cooking of West Bengal; from the countrified vegetable wonders of Gujarat to the tandoori cookery first popularized in Delhi; from the Indian-Chinese food promulgated by Chinese cooks in Calcutta to pan-South Indian dosas and idlis; from the fiery dishes of the former Portuguese colony of Goa to the modern fare of Chennai and Hyderabad and the fish-intensive food of Kerala. We even have a couple of restaurants that represent the Balti cooking of Indian immigrants living in the U.K. Ready for yet another expat Indian cuisine?
Babu Ji recently opened in a former Italian restaurant at Avenue B and 11th Street, a high-ceilinged corner space decorated with dangling Edison light bulbs, lots of surfaces painted East Village black, a stuffed peacock, and a large photo blow-up of a turbaned guy with an outlandish mustache, aviator shades askew. Is he Babu Ji, an honorific used with some irony to designate a neighborhood character? The restaurateurs, Jessi and Jennifer Singh, have owned three Indian restaurants in Australia, including one south of Melbourne also called Babu Ji, which is our restaurant’s progenitor. The Aussie version has been described as the "best Indian restaurant in Melbourne."
Except that the menu in Melbourne is a little more daring than the one we have here. Theirs offers such curiosities as corn-malai dumplings, calamari 65, lamb kebabs served on rosemary skewers, and goat with curry leaves. No goat with curry leaves for us! Are we considered less sophisticated than Australians where Indian food is concerned? Our menu is divided into two sections, plus a tasting menu ($40 per person, four minimum) and a small dessert selection. Called "From the Street," the first part of the menu is snacks such as gol gappa ($12): small hollow pooris filled with a sweet liquid tasting of tamarind. The trick is to pop a whole one in your mouth, chew and swallow, without squirting everyone else at the table.
Other apps include paneer tikka made with homemade cheese, and papadi chaat, one of the chaats now common here on New York Indian menus, especially among cafes that cater to shoppers in Jackson Heights and Jersey City. Also in this section are naans (choice of three: plain, garlic and chive, or sesame and nigella) and the yogurt-cucumber condiment called raita. (Charmingly, the menu spells yogurt in the old-fashioned way as "yoghurt.") A dining companion and I went for the garlic and chive naan ($4), and it was nicely oiled but perhaps too charred in spots.
Since the apps were nearly as expensive as the main courses, which averaged $20 for meat and poultry and $14 for vegetarian ones, we decided to concentrate on entrées. These were tendered in little brass pots, scrupulously well-prepared and garnished with herbs and aromatics of pristine freshness. The "unauthentic butter chicken" was pretty good, tidbits of free-range bird in a thick yogurt sauce. Also known as chicken makhani, this is a recipe invented in the 1950s in Delhi as a way to deploy leftover tandoori chicken; tasting a version that’s also been filtered through Australian sensibilities is fascinating. This version is decidedly sweeter and oranger than the myriad other renditions we have here.
The palak paneer was also pretty good, with a spinach slurry made from the fresh leafy vegetable, but a little simplistic, spice-wise, though it sported a nice chile burn. Anyway, the recipe tastes better with saag, which is mustard greens. The cheese rode atop the puree in square planks rather than being mixed in, which made an interesting presentation, though the bright white cheese was thus prevented from absorbing the juices. The biggest disappointment of the meal was pork vindaloo. Babu Ji gets big props for giving us a pork version of this dish — the meat originally used in Goa — and also for mixing in plenty of fatty pork belly. Unfortunately, the spicing was again timid, with little heat in a dish that has become known worldwide for its spiciness. In fact, the sauce was like barbecue sauce, making us wonder, is this the palate of sweet and fruity flavors Australians adore?
Altogether, Babu Ji is an interesting new addition to the extensive Indian dining landscape in New York. I only wish that we had more of the menu oddities found in the Melbourne branch, and also more chiles. The wine list, by the way, is exceptionally wide-ranging and well chosen; we enjoyed a bottle of semi-dry Riesling from the Niagara Falls region of Ontario for $38. 175 Ave B, (212) 951-1082