With the Armenian spice store Kalustyan's as anchor (a neighborhood fixture since 1944), Curry Hill arose in the 1970s as an Indian shopping strip occupying a three-block stretch of Lexington Avenue north of 26th Street, with businesses spilling onto the side streets. One of the earliest restaurants was Curry in a Hurry (founded 1975), possessing a catchy name that went a long way toward popularizing the neighborhood as a dining destination. Along the lines of the early Jackson Diner, it presented a pleasing combination of northern and southern Indian fare, with plenty for both vegetarians and meat-eaters.
The number of restaurants grew to a handful in the '90s, as kosher-certified vegetarian Indian restaurants became a fixture, and a frankly strange one. The first was Madras Mahal (founded 1993), followed by Pongal, both still doing business. At one time there were as many as five, their menus centered on a largely vegan collection of dosas, utthapams, and idlis.
But Curry Hill–the nickname was coined as a joking reference to Murray Hill, the neighborhood's actual name–appeared to be on the wane as the '90s ended, with grocery stores, sari shops, and restaurants disappearing. But a fad for newly arrived Indo-Chinese food reanimated the area in the early '00s, though most of those places are now also gone. Luckily, increased interest in Indian fare and the strip's location in prime Manhattan real estate make it an easy destination for shopping and dining. Increased immigration, especially from South India, has also multiplied the regional cuisines available there over the last few years; now there are a whopping 24 restaurants in total, making it one of the city's most exciting dining destinations.
Here's a collection of my favorite Curry Hill restaurants, old and new.
OLD: Curry in a Hurry (119 Lexington Ave, 212-683-0904) still has that eclectic spirit, and remains a great place for a piece of tandoori chicken or a bowl of lamb curry or saag paneer–you can depend on real saag (mustard greens) and not palak (spinach) instead. The South Indian stuff–dosas and utthapams–are distinctly inferior to their kosher counterparts across the street. Sit in the once-sumptuous upstairs for a panoramic view of the neighborhood.
NEW: Paradise Biryani Pointe (77 Lexington Ave, 212-686-2299) is a nationwide American chain that specializes in the rice pilafs of Hyderabad in South India (there's another branch in Jackson Heights). The biryanis are compact and spare, but full of flavor and feature a boiled egg. In addition to seven biryanis, the menu also includes a fairly wide range of other South Indian fare, from Portuguese-influenced Goan fish stew to fiery Hyderabadi chicken.
OLD: Haandi (113 Lexington Ave, 212-685-5200) is my favorite restaurant on the strip, peddling pungent and meaty Pakistani fare with a surprising preponderance of vegetable dishes and some really interesting meat-vegetable-lentil combinations, incorporating such things as snake gourd and bitter melon matched with lamb or chicken. Another highlight: ultra-gelatinous goat-foot stew. The upstairs a la carte is where the gourmet action is, with tiny tandoori quails often perching on the countertop, rather than at the downstairs buffet.
NEW: Chote Nawab (115 Lexington Ave, 212-679-4603), named after a luckless cinema hero and my third favorite Curry Hill restaurant, is one of a new breed of places that highlight several regional cuisines at once in an upscale setting. The dining room is so handsome, you might want to invite your parents, and the food is nicely prepared if not always authentic. One of the few refectories in town where you can get the seafood-intensive and coconut-laced food of Kerala, but you can also order biryanis that come sealed in pastry. Pictured: the "Tunda Ka Kabab," from Lucknow in North India.
OLD: Madras Mahal (104 Lexington Ave, 212-684-4010) was one of the earliest places in town to feature the dosas, utthapams, and idlis that are the heart of South Indian vegetarian cuisine, and still turns out a pleasing diversity of these dishes. It's kosher, too, and still duking it out for supremacy with Pongal, just down the block, as other similar restaurants have disappeared.
NEW: Desi Galli (101 Lexington Ave, 212-683-2292), when it debuted a few months ago, was the first place in Curry Hill to serve kathi rolls and other urban Indian street snacks, a menu that has long since become common in other Manhattan neighborhoods. As a side specialty, Desi Galli also serves a limited selection of snacky "chaats" and, for larger appetites, biryanis. Possibly for the first time in town, Desi Galli grills up Indian sliders.
OLD: Chinese Mirch (120 Lexington Ave, 212-532-3663) might be the last gasp of Indo-Chinese food, which first surfaced here a decade ago and became so popular, that many of the key dishes were absorbed into other Indian menus, obviating the need for Indo-Chinese restaurants. Although a new Thai-Chinese and Indo-Chinese restaurant, Chalchilli, has just opened right next door, and there was until recently a Singaporean-Indian restaurant down the block, Singapura, this place still gives us the most complete picture of the cuisine, which can be good or awful, depending on your perspective. Above: Indo-Chinese classic chili chicken.
NEW: Bhojan (102 Lexington Ave, 212-213-9615) offers strictly vegetarian fare with kosher certification–but no dosas! Instead, we have elegant appointments and an upscale take on food from India's westernmost state of Gujarat, as seen in dishes such as Gujarati kadhi, a bowl of spiced yogurt thickened with chickpea flour poured over rice, simple and delicious, and methi gota, deep-green fritters of fenugreek leaf. Additionally, there are some Punjabi dishes and Mumbai chaats thrown in for good measure at this three-year old, yoga-driven spot, which is my second favorite restaurant in the neighborhood.
NEW/OLD: Anjappar (116 Lexington Ave, 212-ANJ-FOOD) is a branch of a restaurant chain that began 45 years ago in India, serving the food of the Chettinars, a group from Chettinad. This place offers a good opportunity to sample some of the meatier fare from South India, available a la carte or in thalis–round metal trays that present a cavalcade of small dishes for munching, spooning, and dipping, served with a multi-layer, buttery parathas. The red awning may remind you of Annapurna, one of the oldest Indian restaurants on the block, which had the same management, but is now kaput. Its spirit lives on.
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