In 2003, as his stint in India’s prestigious Oberoi culinary school was winding down, Chintan Pandya was served a meal made by local blue-collar folk in the rural outskirts of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, which is India’s largest state by area.
“I was not even sure it was legal to cook it because they were doing it in a very hush-hush kind of a thing,” he recalls. “With a lot of dishes, hunting isn’t allowed.” The dish was a rabbit feast that would haunt his memory for decades, until now — 18 years later — when it debuted at Dhamaka, his love letter to Indian village cuisine.
Asked why he took so long, he offers an uncharacteristically simple and shy answer: “I was not sure if someone would buy it.” He adds: “The way Adda was received by New York gave me confidence that if the rabbit could work, it would be in New York.”
Not only has it worked, but the Rajasthani khargosh is a dish that some diners might be wary of, it has sold out every night since its debut on March 13. There’s only one serving a night, and it’s perhaps the most impossible-to-order dish in NYC right now. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells created an even greater demand for it when he confessed in his review of Dhamaka that he had twice failed to order the rabbit (none of the city’s leading restaurant critics have succeeded, including Eater’s chief critic Ryan Sutton). It’s likely now that this rabbit feast, which costs $190, is the most-coveted dish among New York’s hottest restaurants.
“The best part about this dish is it’s only ordered by connoisseurs, people who really want to try this dish,” says Pandya. “When you come to eat the rabbit, you’ve mentally prepared yourself for days. So there’s a humongous amount of excitement for people who try this rabbit.”
Some customers may get turned down if Pandya feels they are just ordering the dish to show off. For instance, an acquaintance of Pandya, a vegetarian, requested the rabbit dish for his girlfriend. “I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to sell it to you.’ I didn’t find the intent of this person to try the dish,” says Pandya. “It’s a $200 dish. It should have an impact and a lasting impression in your mind. It’s a feast. It’s not a status object.”
Pandya’s rabbit preparation is unlike any other dish on Dhamaka’s menu. After arriving from John Fazio Farms upstate, the whole carcass is soaked 48 hours ahead of the dinner in a yogurt marinade spiced with chile powder, cinnamon, cloves, garlic paste, ginger, and mustard oil. On the day it’s served, the rabbit is transferred to a clay pot and warmed for an hour before it’s draped on a bed of diced potatoes, bathed in chicken stock, then sealed with dough, and left to cook slowly on low heat for six hours. Sides include rasewale aloo, dal, basmati rice, cups of yogurt with pomegranate seeds, and chapati or paratha bread. It’s served whole, with a special presentation of the rabbit’s skull and kidneys. The feast serves two to four people, but it’s not uncommon for a table of diners sharing the dish to leave with multiple takeout containers. Pandya has seen diners mop up every last drop with as many as four extra orders of bread.
“There’s a whole drama around it, when you open the pot and the aroma just wafts out,” says Nandini Mukherjee, a Kolkata immigrant to the Upper East Side who owned Indian Bread Co., which catered the New York premiere of Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. She — along with her party of eight — was the first person to order the rabbit successfully. She has been a regular at Pandya’s restaurants since he ran the kitchen at Rahi in 2017.
“Each state in India has its own nuances and very different kinds of cooking. It’s almost like different cuisines. So when you say ‘Indian cuisine’ it’s not something that’s all-inclusive,” says Mukherjee. “To have a place like Dhamaka in such passionate pursuit of that inclusion is amazing, just amazing to get that in New York. I thought I’d have to wait to go back home to India to have meals like his.”
Asked where else in the world she could have had the Rajasthani rabbit, she replies immediately: “Rajasthan. I don’t think it exists anywhere outside of Rajasthan. Even in India. I’ve eaten in London — the great Indian restaurants, great Parsi food — but nothing like this. It’s not something that has traveled much outside of the state. Think of barbecue in Nashville or South Carolina. It’s all different and you can’t really get it elsewhere.”
There are tips, of course, on how to secure the rabbit feast. First, an oldie but a goodie: Customers should read their email. After an online reservation is booked at Dhamaka, customers automatically receive an email asking if they would like to order the rabbit, which must be prepaid. Rabbit hunters must click a link in that email to secure the dish. That is the only way to order the rabbit. Adding a comment to the reservation like “I’d like to order the rabbit” doesn’t work (Dhamaka’s staff doesn’t see those comments until the day of the reservation, which is too short-notice). Second, diners should be flexible. Try a few different nights, as far in advance as desirable. The kitchen hasn’t had a cancellation yet, and it hasn’t even ironed out plans for such a scenario.
Because the ordering process is days in advance, there’s a long emotional journey leading up to the meal. Mukherjee recalls how her anticipation built up ahead of the feast, which she compared to an Indian Thanksgiving. “It melts in your mouth. The flavors are very well-balanced. The slow-cooking gives it this deep, smoky flavor,” says Mukherjee. “Rabbit is a little gamier but when you’re cooking with all those spices it kind of mimics chicken but with a much deeper flavor. It’s in stock so there’s no chance for this rabbit to dry out. It’s juicy. It’s succulent. Do you know what it is? It’s a grown-up version of chicken.”
Another guest, Peter Stankiewicz, a sculptor from the East Village, was similarly impressed when he ordered the elaborate dish: “This is what Henry VIII would’ve eaten if he ever went to an Indian restaurant.” Although it’s not a flawless dish, according to his dining companion Nitin Mukul. “The potatoes are much spicier than the rabbit, which is tempered better,” said Mukul, a visual artist from Jackson Heights. “I could taste the meat and all the spices. But the potatoes are pure fire.”
It’s a little surprising that Rajasthani food — which has a robust vegetarian repertoire — has not been exported further, given how influential the state has otherwise been in shaping India’s global image. Many Bollywood tropes of dancing, fashion, and weddings are rooted in local Rajasthani culture, which is known for its opulent royal families and equally lavish dishes (lots of complicated savory snacks, like kachoris, and milk desserts with many steps, like ghevar). And Jiggs Kalra, the late “czar of Indian cuisine” who was also known as “tastemaker to the nation,” shaped his palate at a boarding school in Rajasthan.
“A lot of people think that the only meat that Indian cuisine has is chicken, lamb, and goat,” says Pandya. “Nobody has explored the other side of Indian food. At Dhamaka, that’s what we wanted to open up. Our cuisine is so vast and diverse but revolves around four or five dishes. We wanted to broaden that with Indian food which legitimately is available in India.”
Soon, Dhamaka will roll out new business cards that will answer these and other frequent rabbit questions asked of the staff, especially after the feast is revealed at a nearby table.
But the cards won’t address one of the most important questions about the rabbit: What to drink with it? Pandya has a quick answer: “Beer would be a phenomenal option.”