Uptown, Indian restaurants have a way of hanging on a long time, particularly if they’re good. Take Kismat, situated in the hill country just south of Fort Tryon Park. The name means “fate” and it’s been around since 1981, serving Indian and Bangladeshi food that runs to lush biryanis, yogurt-laced kurmas, pineapple-sweetened malais, and tandoori-cooked kebabs.
For part of that four-decade era, the chef was Sammi Ahmed, and the evolution of the menu into what might be termed Indian-American cooking is at least partly owing to him. Then five years ago he opened Clove, right across the street from the ornate main gate of City College. As with Kismat, the breadth of the menu, a mixture of Indian and Indian-American dishes, is impressive. There are 21 bulging menu sections, ending in Burgers.
Gazing out the window, you might almost feel like you’re contemplating the entrance to heaven, as good as the food often is. The dining room is broad and L shaped, with a bare brick wall arrayed with flaming candles, which lend a mystic aura to the space. A semi-open kitchen sits in the middle, from which the clatter of pots occasionally issues.
I was attracted to the place when I examined the menu online and saw that it offered sahina ($4.50), oblong fritters familiar from Trinidadian menus. Could this be the city’s only combination Indian and Trinidadian restaurant? Despite the South Asian heritage of around 40 percent of Trinidadians, the cuisines have never been offered on the same menu, as far as I can tell. But when asked about the dish, Ahmed nodded enthusiastically and said, “The sahina first came from the Uttar Pradesh state in India, where I’m from.” Aligned on the plate were four oblong patties of spinach and chickpea flour, a tasty and nutritious snack it’s easy to imagine agricultural workers slipping into their pockets as they headed out to the fields in either country.
Some friends and I ate many other remarkable dishes that evening, including a couple of breads from a large and lively roster. Listed among the appetizers, the coconut poori ($4.50) spilled baker’s coconut onto the plate when bitten into, and added a welcome sweetness to our mid-meal. Another treat was Mughlai paratha, a puffy flatbread stuffed with ground meat, boiled eggs, and random vegetables, making it almost a complete meal. A further bread strikes a distinctly Indian-American theme: cheese poori, extravagantly inflated and oozing American cheese, a welcome variation on the classic grilled cheese sandwich.
As at Kismat, another highlight of the menu were the chicken, lamb, beef, and shrimp kebabs, found in several parts of the menu. New to me was the “sizzling kori kebab,” which featured morsels of tandoori-cooked meat sauced in a cooked-down slurry of onions, tomatoes, and fresh ginger, with the sharply flavored rhizome dominating. Immersing the kebab in sauce is an antidote to all the dry kebabs found at Indian restaurants. Skip the skinless chicken breast and go for the lamb ($15.95), which adds the farmyard flavor of halal lamb to the recipe.
Earlier, I suggested that the menu of Kismat and Clove at least partially represented an Indian-American take on Indian cooking, just as Chinese-American involves a modification of Cantonese recipes for ingredients and food preferences found here. One indication of this is a certain ramped-up sweetness to some of the dishes, including those in the Malai section, which modify traditional recipes with the addition of pineapple.
Another modification, and one perhaps in emulation of Chinese-American restaurants, involves ganging proteins up in a dish, rather than doling them out one by one. A common Chinese-American example would be “triple delight,” which usually includes pork, chicken, and shrimp. At Clove, Madras mixed curry — referring to the southeastern city now known as Chennai — incorporates chicken, lamb, and beef in a chile-laced red sauce. Indeed, beef itself on the menu is another sign of Indian-American cooking. Back in India cow is sacred, and almost never seen on menus except in the province of Kerala in the far south.
Perhaps the best dish on the menu is pure invention on the part of the chef. Who could resist something called Bombay chicken ($24), name checking a city whose moniker has long since changed to Mumbai. A whole pullet is dipped in the usual bright red tandoori spices, split open, and cooked in the clay oven, leaving it moist and tender. Then a mixed-meat biryani is stuffed into the cavity, before being heaped with coconut and cilantro, making a very pretty dish and one filled with contrasting flavors and textures.
The menu contains plenty of desirable offerings, including a mixed seafood kurma laced with cashew butter and a chicken Madras that packs a searing heat as if the sun were glancing off the Bay of Bengal directly into your eyes. But when December comes and it’s my responsibility to pick out the best of the year, Clove’s Bombay chicken will certainly be in contention.