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Where there's passion, there's promise
Panipuri is one of the world's best bites. If you haven't had the pleasure, it's an Indian street snack comprised of puri (a small piece of puffed fried bread with a delicately crisp exterior) filled with peas and/or potatoes, fresh herbs (like cilantro or coriander leaves), and masala powder, then showered with tamarind water and more spices. When stuffed generously, its round shape just barely fits perfectly into your mouth, forcing you to devour it immediately. That first chomp is like smacking open a piñata; the shell shatters, and a rush of flavor washes over your taste buds. There's tartness, a kick of spice, some starchiness to balance it out. Sweet, sour, crackly. Your eyes open wide as you try to regain control over your senses.
So I was excited when it was the first to arrive on our table last night in Long Island City, delivered by the chef himself ("One bite. Enjoy!"). His version, called dahi batata puri, has potatoes tossed in a chili blend that creeps down into your throat, tamarind & mint chutney for freshness and punch, and a dash of cooling yogurt. As all five of us came up for air, we nodded with approval. Initiation complete.
Next was kale pagoda, the leafy green encased in a thick batter made of chickpea flour and chat masala, then dribbled with a variety chutneys. Off to a good start. Then came a procession of dishes from the tandoor grill, all accompanied by thin slices of raw onions and a light-green yogurt dressing. Chili paneer tikka made with homemade cheese; achari murgh tikka (boneless chicken, pickling spice, coriander); lamb seekh kebab (with green chili, mint, and fried onion); and tandoori poussin (bird chili, vinegar, black salt).
Finally, dilliwala butter chicken—spicer and more aromatic than the sweet and creamy renditions I've had in the past—and slow-cooked goat biryani from Lucknow laden with heat, fragrant with saffron, and served under a bread crust. By the end of the meal, I was ripping off pieces that were hanging from the bowl and slightly soggy from the rice steam, then wiping them through sauce that was left behind.
There were mishaps in service, and the acoustics were far from ideal. As for food, while everything was enjoyable, if I had known that each clay-oven grilled item would be presented in the same fashion, I wouldn't have doubled down on that section. But in the corner of my eye, I kept catching the chef-owner running around, checking in with front-of-house staff, popping back into the kitchen, then re-emerging to present a plate here and there. And a stocky man who seemed to be the GM was working the room with a radiating enthusiasm so genuine that my mom couldn't stop talking about him.
I'll cut to the chase: what I love about this restaurant is that its purpose is felt. In the frenetic energy, in the diverse menu so deeply rooted in tradition, in the wallpaper collaged out of Indian newspapers. I forgave any flaws because I saw the passion; because I don't doubt that while there is room to grow, this team will put out an undying effort to do so. To perceive all of that just by enjoying a meal and taking in your surroundings is a rare thing. And as far as I'm concerned, it's something to celebrate.
31-31 Thomson Ave, Long Island City, NY, 11101
Things I read and liked:
To say Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an inspiration would be a severe understatement. [Bon Appétit]
I want to make them all. Is this the year I can convince my mom to forgo apple pie (the worst of Thanksgiving desserts) or will someone in my family be pissed that it's gone? [NYT]
Le Labo is creeping up on Aesop and I'm not mad about it. [Eater]
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P.S. Sorry I don't have pictures to share this time, I know a lot of you liked them. More to come :)