Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the twentieth installment along with the previous edition.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been eating Indian lunches as often as possible. I’d been missing the days when downtown was filled with Punjabi steam table joints where $5 to $10 got you an orange tray filled with two curries — one made with vegetables, the other with chicken or lamb; dal; a chutney or two; basmati rice; and a nicely browned naan, hot from the oven. Yes, those days are gone, but some good deals by today’s standards still remain south of 42nd Street in Manhattan.
While one block over on Second Avenue, Jazba is exploring the food of Indian dhabas (roadside shacks) at high prices, on First Avenue another dhaba still flourishes, focusing on Punjabi fare. Veeray da Dhaba is basically an updated steam table joint but with more choices and food prepared to order, and $17 gets you an enormous quantity at lunchtime on weekdays.
I ordered the homestyle chicken curry — love that daily specials are offered on a rotating basis, and that lamb is available for a fair price — which did indeed taste very homestyle and mellow. It came with a dish of potatoes and peas that didn’t taste frozen — I swear! The dal was also a standout. This was a memorable lunch and I hope to return again. 221 1st Avenue, between 13th and 14th streets, East Village
A few blocks west, Mysttik Masaala is serving some of the best vegetable samosas in town at Urbanspace Union Square. Yes, at $5 each they are way more expensive than the ones at Merit Kabab Palace in Jackson Heights, but these are big, big samosas, filled with more veggies than just potatoes and peas, and two make a filling meal; and the chutneys are great, not poured from a bottle. I tried to like the two curries I tasted there, including a palak paneer ($20), which was underspiced and served in a bowl with too much extraneous roughage (chopped onions and a flavorless slaw), though there was plenty of paneer underneath. Still, there was way too little main dish in the bowl at that price. 124 East 14th Street, near Broadway, Union Square
Swagat has been in the Fur District just north of the Fashion Institute of Technology for decades, though it underwent a facelift a few years ago. It’s one of the few remaining steam table establishments I was talking about earlier, and presents the same lush and generous lunch for $13 (with chicken or lamb a couple dollars more) that used to be a few dollars less. No matter, today is today, and the food is still splendid.
I picked palak paneer and mixed vegetables, the latter in a korma vein with more types of veggies than they needed to provide. The guy behind the counter, as if to pity my vegetarian repast, asked if I wanted dal, too, and when I said yes, he spread spoonfuls thickly over the rice. And I stood and waited as the baker pried the naan out of the oven, smoking hot. 205 West 29th Street, near 7th Avenue, Chelsea
Years ago, there was a fad for Bollywood-themed fast food restaurants, and Masala Times is one of the few that remains. In the heart of the Village, it advertises on its bright orange but now faded awning, “Very Spicy, Very Bollywood.” Among the kati rolls and paav-based sandwiches, the menu offers a section of full meals presented as bowls, including dal and bread, along the lines of the full-tray meals of the steam tables.
Though the online menu offers a Goan shrimp curry, that day there wasn’t anything South Indian, the chef told me, but there was a northern Indian shrimp curry ($20) he warmly recommended. When it arrived, it made me very happy: Five jumbo shrimp in a thick curry that tasted of cream and tamarind, and packed quite a wallop in terms of spiciness. He saw me fanning my mouth and hopped across the counter to ask if was too hot for me. “Are you kidding?,” was my reply. 194 Bleecker Street, near 6th Avenue, Greenwich Village