Dhamaka, the city’s hottest new Indian spot not owned by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, is the rare modern Manhattan restaurant to offer gurda kapoora, a mix of chiles, goat kidneys, and testicles. Outside of sweetbreads or pate, the wondrous world of soft tissue offal — stomachs, gonads, brains — doesn’t tend to occupy a ton of real estate at cool-kid venues like this one. It’s a shame, really, as the snappy, slithery, and sometimes custardy textures of these viscera, which don’t boast the same steak-like meatiness as, say, grilled hearts, often bring an added layer of complexity to a dish.
Owner Roni Mazumdar and chef-owner Chintan Pandya have long served a stellar bheja fry at Adda in Long Island City, cloaking goat brains in tomato sauce until they take on the consistency of soft scrambled eggs. At their new Essex Crossing food market on the Lower East Side, the duo offer their kapoora — a popular Ramadan snack that’s also known as taka tak in Lahore, Pakistan — to the tune of just five or six portions a night. Pandya cooks the organs in a mixture of red chile, turmeric, and ginger garlic paste before serving it all up in the same metal bowl it’s cooked in.
The kidneys pack a wonderfully firm pop, followed by a sweet, grassy funk that’s only a degree or two muskier than goat butter. The testicles, in turn, exhibit a soft bounciness, like an unpeeled grape. I like to pile the organs between two slices of soft pao, making a sloppy joe of sorts, before chomping down and letting a scattering of green chiles light my palate ablaze. This is what I want to be eating right now, even if Dhamaka’s outdoor dining setup, alas, doesn’t always mean I’ll be comfortable enough to actually dine here.
When taking scope of the city’s next class of culinary empire builders, it would be remiss to overlook the work of Mazumdar and Pandya, who have assembled what might be New York’s most kaleidoscopic trio of Indian spots. Rahi was their firstborn; that very good Greenwich Village venue offers the most creative dishes of the bunch, including dry-aged lamb burgers, masala fried-chicken sandwiches, and other fare that channels some of the internationalist Indian tendencies of the late, great Floyd Cardoz. Adda in Queens arrived not too long afterward; it attracted massive waits in pre-pandemic New York, due in no small part to its tandoor-cooked meats and homestyle curries.
What sets Dhamaka apart, aside from its high-profile location in Essex Crossing, is its avowed and excellent dedication to the “forgotten side of India,” as the website puts it, offering a variety of regional dishes not frequently seen on New York’s South Asian menus.
That means diners won’t encounter the indulgent plates of butter chicken or green saag paneer that Mazumdar and Pandya sell at their other locations. Instead, servers bring out tabak maaz, a classic Kashmiri dish that usually involves simmered and fried lamb ribs. Chef de cuisine Eric Valdez prefers to slow poach the meat and then grill it until it has a delicate, shreddable texture. Some bites pull apart in a pleasantly stringy way, other morsels sport fats as wobbly as a good souffle, and others wear a sweet-salty coat of fennel and cumin. It’s one of the least spicy dishes on the incendiary menu, a de facto title it shares with the paplet fish fry, a tiny pomfret that’s been crisped up in semolina flour, as one might find in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. You pick through the mild flesh with your fingers, avoiding the tiny bones, and dip it in a verdant mint-cilantro chutney so aromatic it almost seems to pack a whiff of underripe bananas.
You eat this food at tables, exclusively, either indoors or in an outdoor tent that could arguably use a bit more ventilation at times. Dhamaka, indeed, is the rare pandemic restaurant not to offer takeout, and the first restaurant I’ve reviewed with a dine-in-only policy since last March.
When I asked the owners why Dhamaka only offers sit-down dining, they said they wanted to preserve the integrity of the dishes, and that this is a type of food that might not translate well to delivery. It’s a fair argument, and while one could say as much about, well, literally any dish at any restaurant, one can sympathize with a new venue hoping patrons will have their inaugural dining experience at a table rather than from a paper bag. A lot can happen to a delicate preparation during a subway trip back home; a patron might not be inclined to return for a more expensive dine-in meal after retrieving soggy fried fish from a plastic container.
There’s also a separate consideration, though, which is that of a South Asian spot trying to establish itself as a sit-down destination. Even though Indian fare in New York has a notable history of formal dining rooms, tasting menus, and Michelin stars, the cuisine sometimes still battles with societal perceptions of being cheap delivery fare or steam table cooking. Dhamaka’s anti-takeout policy will only help chip away at that mentality.
Patrons scan a QR code at their table to bring up a menu, though servers are quick to mention that the online ordering system — like the one Thai Diner used to employ — isn’t currently operational, meaning that you still interact with workers to get your seekh kebabs, which are as wonderful as anything else at this nearly two-month-old venue.
Pandya uses goat belly for the kebabs; its fattiness imparts the preparation with a preternaturally soft texture. The meat almost seems to spread like butter on a crisp slab of paratha. A charcoal finish imparts a delicate smokiness.
For champaran stew, a study in in ovine silkiness, Valdez slow cooks Arizona mutton for nearly five hours with mustard powder, fenugreek, and clove until the fats mimic the texture of jam. The meat is fairly neutral by mutton standards; its earthiness and gaminess barely rise above the sweet warmth of the seasoning.
Ragda pattice, a potato patty with the flavor of hash browns and the texture of a soft rice cake, looks innocent enough at first glance; the kitchen showers it in crunchy white peas and a sweet date-tamarind chutney. At this point the dish almost falls into dessert territory. Then the heat of a green chile, which tastes like what would happen if a sharp onion and a pile of habanero seeds had a baby, starts building. The pain will subside eventually, though the sting can last a little longer with the gurda kapoora. When a server brought over my goat biryani right after I finishing the kidneys, I spent the first few minutes slurping up a side of pomegranate-studded yogurt that accompanied the rice, just to cool my palate.
The biriyani, with its long, delicate grains slicked with fat, has its own special degree of heat. Chiles hit the tip of the tongue, and then a powerful dose of ginger and black cardamom fills up the rest of the mouth. If the spice is too much at first, take solace in the fact that it becomes a bit milder as it cools down; heat amplifies the sensation of spice.
It goes without saying that many folks might not be ready for outdoor dining, especially as certain demographic groups and neighborhoods still lag behind in vaccinations. The good news is that both Adda and Rahi offer takeout. One could question, however, whether Dhamaka has the ideal dining setup for a hesitant patron — or any patron or staffer, for that matter. Like at scores of other establishments, a large tent covers the outdoor dining area, where tables are well spaced. On warm nights, two large openings on one side of the tent provide open-air ventilation. Yet on at least one chilly evening, those openings were suddenly closed off, and it didn’t feel right for me to be there at all.
New York City classifies tents with fewer than two open sides as indoor dining, which the CDC ranks among the riskiest forms of eating out. And as at any outdoor or indoor dining room, patrons tend to take their masks off and keep them off, even when interacting with service staffers, which makes me wonder whether the city is really ready for any of this.