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Clockwise from upper left:Gobi hari mirchi ka khurchan (minced cauliflower), basmati rice,  jhumta kukkad (chicken wings in rum), palak cheese (spinach with ricotta balls)
Clockwise from upper left:Gobi hari mirchi ka khurchan (minced cauliflower), basmati rice, jhumta kukkad (chicken wings in rum), palak cheese (spinach with ricotta balls)
Liz Barclay

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Sing a Song of Kashmir at Curry Hill’s Sahib

Eater critic Robert Sietsema celebrates a spot for refined Indian dishes.

Over the last decade, restaurants in Manhattan’s Curry Hill have been gradually inching upscale, so there aren’t quite as many cheap options. This transition has raised the bar. The neighborhood offers better-quality food and more regional Indian cuisines than ever before. The latest evidence of this trend is Sahib, a name that's a term of respect derived from Arabic. Sahib is the sixth in a group of restaurants owned and overseen by chef Hemant Mathur, though it was originated by Bollywood actor-turned-restaurateur Shiva Natarajan, who remains a consultant. The restaurants include Dhaba, Chote Nawab, and Haldi in Curry Hill, Chola in Midtown and Malai Marke in the East Village.

Sahib offers dishes from all over India —some well-known, others more obscure —but its heart remains in the north, especially in Punjab, the state adjacent to Pakistan where much of New York’s Indian steam-table fare originated. Rest assured that at Sahib, it has been extensively reworked. But Sahib also pushes north into Kashmir, "like Shangri-La beneath the summer moon," as the haunting Led Zeppelin song describes it. The menu receives its greatest inspiration from that land of mountains and mists.

In contrast to the animated décor of other restaurants in the chain, Sahib’s dining room is relentlessly staid and buff-colored, decorated with many small round mirrors in white sunburst frames and inlaid wall treatments that run from whitewashed lath to pale ceramic tiles. A meal begins auspiciously with an amuse: a slender glass of soup to fend off the winter chill. On one occasion it was pumpkin, on another yellow split peas scented with cardamom.

Not as well-known in Western cooking, fenugreek, with its earthy, aromatic flavor, is encountered again and again. Murgh methi malai ($16) — a recipe from Punjab — features chopped light- and dark meat chicken in a creamy sauce shot with fenugreek leaves (known as methi in several Indian languages). Another fenugreek-intensive dish comes from across the border in Kashmir: methi maaz drops a substantial lamb shank into a greenish sauce seasoned with the fresh leaf. If no one is wearing perfume at your table, you can smell the shank coming across the dining room.

In Kashmir, curries are frequently thickened with yogurt, fresh cilantro crowns most dishes, and saffron is sometimes used with abandon.

Made with tender chunks of long-braised lamb in a yogurt sauce flavored with cumin and caramelized onions, rogan josh ($17) is the cuisine’s signature. Back home in Kashmir, this dish and many others, including ground-meat kebabs and ginger-laced chicken curries, are incorporated into a festive platter called wazwan, which often serves as festival and wedding fare.

Engagingly, Sahib plays fast and loose with several wazwan components. Hare mutter ki shikanpuri is often a grilled patty made with ground lamb, but here green peas and fresh paneer cheese are substituted for the meat, and the fritter is pan fried. Delicious! Other regional dishes are similarly transformed. In palak paneer, a Punjab staple, a slurry of flavorful spinach is surmounted by browned balls of ricotta, suggesting a nascent Indo-Italian cuisine. Similarly, Banarasi eggplant, from the northeastern Indian city of Varanasi on the Ganges River (famous for its burning ghats), is improved by loading the familiar vegetable curry into a smoked eggplant skin. This is cooking genius — reverent toward the original recipe, but willing to alter it in a way that is both contemporary and scrumptious.

Other unforgettable highlights include gobi hari mirchi ka khurchan ($14) — minced cauliflower cooked with green chiles and tomatoes, making the vegetable seem almost like a dairy product; and curry patta jhinga — grilled shrimp skewers coated with a paste of curry leaves and coconut, a recipe originating in the southernmost state of Kerala. Anything to be avoided? Well, yes. The crowd-pleasing classic chicken vindaloo proved not nearly as sour and spicy as it could have been.

Indeed, like pad thai, chicken vindaloo is one of Gotham’s most abused dishes. The original came from the former Portuguese colony of Goa and featured pork, vinegar, and red wine, European ingredients seemingly alien to Indian food, but really demonstrating its vast range as one of the world’s great cuisines. But Sahib may be forgiven for a pallid vindaloo, and it deserves all the stars that can be bestowed upon it. May it be the precursor to many other restaurants splurging on fenugreek and specializing in the pungent fare of Kashmir.

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