Few fast food openings have excited as much interest as the recent debut of Inday, located on Broadway just northwest of Madison Square. The restaurant’s name is an elision of "Indian" and "Day," and without apparent embarrassment it seeks to replicate the success of the Chipotle chain in a South Asian vein, featuring flatbread wraps, bowls, and salads made with boutique ingredients sourced in sustainable and humane ways. The originator of the project is financier Basu Ratnam and, for extra firepower, one of the backers is Jean-Georges Vongerichten partner Phil Suarez. A chum and I visited recently during the cafe’s opening days to find out what all the fuss was about.
The attractive, wood-clad space — decorated with potted palms and geometric tiles — is not actually on Broadway, but around the corner on 26th Street. The compact room provides limited seating at raised tables with backless stools and small two-tops with chairs, and the setup is very much like a Chipotle. A line of clerks in gray branded t-shirts and baseball caps that say "IN" stand behind a counter studded with receptacles containing the raw and cooked materials, often in cubed form. A limited menu was being offered when we arrived (no flatbread-based Cape rolls or cabbage cups). Even then, some promised (and interesting-sounding) ingredients such as smoked tofu were not yet available.
Alas, this turns out to be one of those places that requires you to make lots of choices for your meal to be assembled, which is also true of Chipotle. (Obviously, its customers have adapted.) And the staff seemed befuddled as I tried to order four bowls with diverse combinations of ingredients. I understand the rationale behind giving customers freedom of choice, but I hate list-studying and choice-making when I’m hungry, and would rather leave those sorts of decisions up to some unseen chef.
Here’s how the system works: You pick a main ingredient (chicken, steak, pork, salmon, or smoked tofu), which the management doesn’t want to call main ingredient, not only because you can do without it, but also because the quantity is not profuse compared to the non-main ingredients. They are thus referred to in chef lingo as "proteins," as if half the other ingredients (such as corn, yams, etc.) didn’t also contain a substantial quantity of protein.
You also have to choose as the basis of your meal a pre-set bowl of something characterized by temperature, either Warm or Cool. The first category includes grain and pulse combinations (plus automatically added vegetables): rice and wild rice, quinoa and red lentils, or the astonishingly wonderful "not rice," which consists of raw cauliflower and brussels sprouts shaved as fine as sand; you’d swear it was a grain unto itself. The Cool choices are salad mixes dubbed Ruby, Emerald, and Rainbow, as if they were scenes from the Wizard of Oz. I will only tell you that kale figures into Emerald, and the combinations are complex enough that two fonts are needed to describe them.
Then there are the chutneys, raitas, and hot sauces, which must be specified and further added. The two chutneys (green mint-cilantro and orange-coconut) are a little too thick, but taste great and are the most Indian part of the dining experience at Inday. I give the menu-writer credit for simplifying as much as possible, but I still found myself confused, and at least two out of the four bowls I ordered turned out really lackluster. (In particular, the combo of pork and quinoa.) That’s the problem with freedom of choice on the customer’s part: it also confers the freedom to come up with some awful combinations. I don’t think the same is true of the way Chipotle’s menu is engineered, and I tried Chipotle again for the purposes of this critique.
Here are a few observations, based on the bowls I ordered.
1) No matter how you toss it, the food at Inday never seems very Indian, in the way that the tacos and burritos seem Mexican at Chipotle. Dumping a chutney or two, no matter how authentic, on top of an under-seasoned and sometimes incompatible combo of protein, veggies, and grains doesn’t make them taste anything like the masalas (spice combinations) that characterize South Asian cooking.
2) Get rid of the shredded pork option! Cooked in a banana leaf or not, it tastes like bad Carolina BBQ. When was the last time you saw pork on an Indian menu, anyway?
3) Simplify the bowls, and make them pre-set. Make choices among the grains and vegetables as to which work best with the chicken, pork, beef, salmon, or smoked tofu.
4) Put the wonderful fresh cheese called paneer into the mix along with the other proteins. Or you could make more money by offering it — like guacamole at Chipotle — as an add-on.
5) Offer a vegan choice based on dal (lentils and other beans), which is an ingredient that epitomizes Indian cooking. And spice the sucker up.
Really, New Yorkers have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to tolerate and admire complex and even fiery spice combinations that have originated around the globe. You have a chance here to introduce the flavors of Indian food to a fast casual audience, so why not do so more aggressively? At the moment only the two chutneys have any semblance of Indian flavors. How about some Indian pickles? The sky’s the limit!