Swadist is a four-year-old restaurant at 715 Newark Avenue near Jersey City’s Journal Square, but since it falls to the east of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, it’s on the very edge of India Square — a vast collection of grocery stores, temples, paan windows, and sweets shops — I didn’t notice it until recently. Now after two visits, I think it’s the best Indian restaurant in the neighborhood.
While most of the other food establishments specialize in Hyderabadi biryani, South Indian dosas, Bengali desserts, or Mumbai and Gujarati thalis and snacks, by contrast, Swadist — which means “tasty” in Sanskrit — dotes on Delhi in the menu focus and presentation. The chef owner is Uttam Rawat, who fills his bill of fare with mostly northern but some southern Indian cooking, plus Indo-Chinese and Thai food (the latter eliciting a gasp from one of my guests as she opened the menu one afternoon). Rawat is from Tehri, a town 75 miles northeast of Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas, currently submerged as the result of dam building.
With eye-popping photos of vegetables and spices, a continuous sienna-colored banquette that runs along one wall, gleaming stained-wood furniture, and silver-domed flip-top pots a reminder of bargain buffet on the weekends ($20 adults, $10 children) — “This restaurant looks like a Ramada Inn in Kansas City,” a friend exclaimed — and, indeed, it does. The minute the food starts arriving, the decor is beside the point.
Start with a baby goat masala ($21) immersed in a thick thick sauce predominantly flavored with a ginger-and-garlic paste kissed with tomato, sporting minor notes of cinnamon and cardamom. Every bite is tender and differently fatty. The delicate ribs are especially good. Chicken achari ($17) was the only thing we liked more, featuring hunks of dark meat in a mellow beige sauce with lots of heat and pucker.
While vegetable dishes in a place with so much meat and poultry don’t attract any attention, not so at Swadist. We were knocked out by a dish of the fresh-pressed paneer immersed in a creamy sauce with tons of fresh fenugreek, giving it a pungent flavor that tasted like cheese stored in the back of a cedar cabinet for a long time.
Every bit as impressive was baingan mirchi ka salan ($16), baby eggplants in a recipe that mixes sesame seeds, peanuts, and poppy seeds into a hyper nutty sauce; the vegetables, since they’re small, don’t break up and turn to mush, but remain intact as they bob merrily in the sauce. As an added bonus, this dish is filled with fresh chiles that are hot as hell. Really, this could be the vegetarian dish of the year.
The menu prints a red chile next to any dish it deems too spicy for some: the Bengali fish curry is one of the few dishes to be so honored. Big rafts of tilapia float in a tan sauce laced with mustard oil, engendering a tingle to the throat along with the usual red-pepper burn. Though boasting no chile symbols of its own, black pepper lamb is plenty hot, too.
There is a dum biryani in the Lucknow crust-on style first seen in New York, by me anyway, at Adda in Long Island City from Unapologetic Foods — a treatment that’s been copied since by many Indian restaurants in the metropolitan area. Speckled with a colorful range of vegetables, the vegetarian version is particularly recommended. Note that in this case the crust fully functions as a naan (in several versions around town, the crust is hard as a rock), so decrease your order of flatbreads by one when you order the biryani. It also comes with a side of yogurt raita that is a dish in itself.
I was curious about the Chinese and Thai dishes on the menu, but rather than dive in, I stuck to a familiar Thai order on the second visit. My pad Thai arrived, a heap of broad and moist rice noodles topped with sprouts and crushed peanuts, and dotted with shrimp and chicken. As usual, the dish was achingly sweet, but it really could have come from any Thai restaurant in town, which, as far as I’m concerned, is another tip of the hat to the excellence of Swadist.