It would be nearly impossible to visit an Indian restaurant in the United States right now and not find butter chicken on the menu. This ubiquitous dish or its less creamy, sweeter cousin chicken tikka masala have become synonymous with Indian food in the West. The fact that most Indians don’t consume the dish on a regular basis is just the jumping off point for Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar, the chef and restaurateur team behind NYC’s acclaimed Indian restaurants Adda and Rahi.
At their newest venture, Dhamaka, located inside Essex Market, at 119 Delancey Street, diners won’t find butter chicken on the menu. In fact, it’s likely that a majority of restaurant goers won’t recognize most of the dishes on the menu here. For Pandya and Mazumdar, that’s an intentional choice.
“Dhamaka is our way of showing New Yorkers parts of India they might not have seen,” says Mazumdar, who also owns the Indian restaurant Masalawala, located on Essex Street just three blocks away. “I’ve been in this industry for a very long time, and you get boxed in in many different ways. With Dhamaka we’re looking at ways we can unshackle ourselves.”
That’s evident not just in the range of dishes that represent foods from many different parts of the country, but also in the ways the food is served at Dhamaka. The steel pressure cooker, an essential tool in most Indian homes, becomes the vessel for Dhamaka’s chicken masala pulao, a version of the rice dish that can be found throughout South and Central Asia, and the Middle East. Dhamaka’s pulao is made to order, Pandya says, and it’s served in the pressure cooker at the table. “The execution is the most important part,” says Pandya, referring to how the pulao should be served up fresh from the pressure cooker.
Dhamaka’s menu extends to dishes from all over the country, and creating it was a collaborative process, Pandya says. He spent several months traveling throughout India, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, to explore regional foods that were popular locally but that had not made their way onto restaurant menus.
Inspiration for the dishes also came from his team. Eric Valdez, Dhamaka’s chef de cuisine, and a long-time member of the Adda and Rahi culinary family discovered doh khleh during his research on regional dishes. This pork salad, from the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, is served up with lemon, cilantro, onion, and ginger, in addition to the meat, at Dhamaka.
Parts of the menu were also inspired by Pandya and Mazumdar’s own family recipes. Bharela marcha, a stuffed chile pepper dish commonly consumed in the western Indian state of Gujarat, is one of Pandya’s favorite preparations by his mother-in-law, who lives across the street from his home in the city. At Dhamaka, the dish is recreated with sweet peppers to tone down the heat just a little, and stuffed with peanuts and cilantro.
The macher jhol, a spicy fish curry from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, was a dish Mazumdar grew up eating. He recalls feeling embarrassed growing up when his friends would come over as the smell of the mustard oil in the curry wafted through the house. But now, he’s embracing the dish. At Dhamaka, Pandya is preparing it with baby shark, instead of the more typical hilsa or rohu fish that’s used in the dish.
Dhamaka’s opening on February 14 is a culmination of a years-long effort for the duo, which was particularly dealt a blow due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandya and Mazumdar were initially set to debut the restaurant early last year before the virus delayed plans indefinitely like it did for so many other restaurateurs across the city.
“The wait has been so long, but it feels like the worst is behind us,” says Pandya. Soon after they announced the project in 2019, Pandya says most people expected the duo to open another location of Adda or Rahi. The two restaurants are among the most popular restaurants in the city, and clearly diners wanted more.
But Pandya didn’t want to recreate the same experience, again, he says. Instead, he was focussed on putting a spotlight on everyday Indian cooking. It took some convincing for Mazumdar, who also considered the restaurant’s commercial viability, but Pandya’s pitch got him on board soon enough.
“Somewhere there’s this giant, deep-rooted insecurity among us Indians as if Indian food in its most honest form is unworthy,” says Mazumdar. “That is the food we are focussing on. There might not be direct economic value attached to it, but why are we ignoring some of the largest parts of India?”
When Dhamaka opens this Sunday at Essex Market, it will initially be limited to indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. Though the duo was hoping not to open a reservation-based restaurant, they’ve chosen to do so for now due to pandemic-related safety measures. Mazumdar is working to debut a large outdoor dining area along Delancey Street that will seat about 40 people and should be in place within the next few weeks, he says. The restaurant will initially be open from Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m., but with the last reservation at 9 p.m. due to the state’s existing 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars.
Eventually Mazumdar and Pandya hope to open for weekend brunch as well. “We want to keep pushing ahead,” says Pandya. “This is fun for us.”