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Today’s subject- good Indian food in a restaurant- has me humming “At Last,” along with my iTunes. Quality Indian food in a restaurant is a rarity, which is unfortunate, because I’m always craving Indian food but loathe to order it because of the inevitable disappointing outcome. However, last week I found a restaurant- Kinara- that serves Indian food above and beyond the typical fare- and now I’m humming. I guess I’ve been looking for a while.
A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion at NYU called Found in Translation: An Exploration of How Asian Cuisines Become Part of the American Culinary Landscape. One of the panelists was Maya Kaimal, author of Curried Flavors and Savoring the Spice Coast of India, and founder of Maya Kaimal Fine Foods. The other two panelists were Amy Besa, owner of Cendrillon, a Filipino restaurant I ate purple foods at a while back, and Grace Young, author of The Breath of a Wok, who was hilariously disparaging when describing the state of Chinese food when it first came to America. She also said, “I always travel with a wok.” The panel was moderated by Kathy Gunst, of PRI’s Here and Now.
During the panel, Kaimal explained some of her theories as to why it’s so tough to come by good, and different, Indian food in American restaurants. The majority of Indian restaurants in the US serve north Indian, Mughlai cuisine because this was the main cuisines of restaurants in India for many years. Mughal emperors introduced foods rich in cream, saffron, meat and nuts- expensive ingredients. This type of cuisine was “the food of the palaces,” and “fit for kings,” and people across India would go to restaurants specifically to eat a luxurious meal that was different from the food they had in their homes. This restaurant cuisine then made its way to Indian restaurants abroad, first in Britain and then in America. Kaimal said that what we eat in Indian restaurants today in America is a version of a version of a version of a cuisine.
Anyway, back to Kinara, where the food was unusually delightful because the cooks took obvious care in preparing every dish. Unfortunately, as you probably know, typical Indian restaurant dishes always taste too similar: creamy, garlicky, and heavy in a nondescript way. But at Kinara, each dish sparkled with subtle flavors.
We started with Aloo Tikyas, or potato cakes with chickpeas and chutney. I was expecting ragda pattis- soft, lightly fried potato patties, topped with yellow peas and sweet and spicy chutneys. It’s one of my favorite Indian snacks. Instead, we got deep-fried potato patties, topped with tasty mint and tamarind chutneys. The chutneys made the dish work, since they were obviously freshly prepared.
We also got aloo papdi chaat and channa (chole) batura, both excellent.
For our entrees, we ordered paneer bhurji (shredded paneer sautéed with spices, onions and peppers), malai kofta, baingan bhartha, and a bread basket. The baingan was properly smoky, the kofta in the malai kofta was deliciously soft, and the naans in the bread basket- garlic, aloo (potato) and dal (lentil) were fluffy and warm.
At last, I no longer feel despair setting in when I’m craving Indian food because now I know I won’t be disappointed by how boring and uninspired dishes taste, when what I’m craving- and what I can order- are the comforting, but exciting flavors of India.
aloo tikyas: $3.95; aloo papdi: $4.95; bread basket: $9.95; bhurji: $9.95; malai kofta: $9.95; bhartha: $9.95
** since writing this entry, we’ve gotten take-out from Kinara about 5 times. Saag paneer is pretty bland but everything else we’ve tried has been great.