Beginner’s Guide to Indian Food in NYC’s ‘Curry Hill’
Sit down for an elegantly appointed three-course meal, or feast on a lunch buffet with rock-bottom prices; try a delicate dosa in the morning or a gut-busting biryani for lunch -- the most enticing part of this New York City restaurant strip is its diversity
As is the case with so many of the varied cuisines in New York City, much of the area’s heralded Indian food is far from its center. Jackson Heights, northern New Jersey, the eastern border of Queens at Floral Park and New Hyde Park — for Manhattanites or anyone without a car, these neighborhoods can be quite a trek. But those who love Indian fare have an option nearly at its center, clustered around Murray Hill’s East 28th Street and Lexington Avenue — a Little India of sorts affectionately dubbed “Curry Hill.” There you’ll find everything from all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets to first-class dosas to Pakistani kebabs, along with Manhattan’s best South Indian market.
A multitude of India’s regional cuisines are represented in the Curry Hill area, allowing you to venture far beyond chicken tikka masala. There’s the heavily spiced, often meat-heavy fare of Chennai; the coconut-heavy, seafood-loving Kerala; and the kebabs of Punjabi (and neighboring Pakistan). What’s more, many Indians are vegetarian — not as a fad of recent years, but as a product of Hindu, Buddhist or much stricter Jain precepts. (Vegans should ask about animal products, as ghee, clarified butter, lurks in many dishes.) And if you’re thinking of trying Indian further down in the East Village, check out our guide to the Second Avenue Indian strip.
The New York outpost of a global chain founded in Chennai in 1964, Anjappar features the strongly spiced (and generally non-vegetarian) dishes of Southern Indian Chettinad cuisine in a refined setting. The cloth napkins, dim lighting, dark-red walls and repeating fleur de lis art all contribute to the nicer-than-average vibe, and the full bar is a plus as well. On the plate, look for the multiple mutton dishes, seafood specialties such as crab masala and king fish curry, and an order of flaky parotta flatbread to round out the meal. 116 Lexington Ave., 212-265-3663, anjapparusa.com
Want to explore the vegetarian dishes of Gujarat — explore a lot of them? Head to Vatan, where $30 gets you a sampling of (count ‘em) 21 dishes, from samosas and channa masala to yogurt-chickpea soup and “mirchi bhajia,” deep fried hot peppers. Need seconds of any dish? It’s included in the price. The setting is charmingly hokey — thatched awnings and cheery murals; great, if you’re looking for “Epcot Center: Gujarat.” But the 20-foot banyan tree is quite impressive, and the tables well-spaced for a tranquil dining room; if you relax, take off your shoes, and embrace the experience, it’s easy to enjoy. 409 3rd Ave., 212-689-5666, vatanny.com
Bhatti Indian Grill
The word “bhatti” translates to “open-fire grill,” and that’s fittingly the focus at Bhatti Indian Grill, where the kebabs and anything else that’s landed on the grill — don’t miss the lamb or the deeply spiced chicken Bhatti da Murg kebab — are the best bet. Vegetarians aren’t left out of the fun, either, with the grilled paneer (a fresh cheese, marinated before it’s cooked) or grilled mushrooms as viable options. Despite the grill moniker and less than impressive facade, the interior has charms that push it into casual date territory — with an exposed brick wall, dark wooden tables and a warming red and off-white color scheme. (Also perfect for date night: It’s BYOB with no corkage fee.) 100 Lexington Ave., 212-683-4228, bhattiindiangrill.com
Sure, the floor is gray tile, your food comes on red plastic trays and the lighting isn’t exactly flattering, but don’t let the no-frills interior put you off. You’d be missing a taste of Pakistani fare, which bears a resemblance to Punjabi cuisine, the nearest region over the border in India. As such, just like at Bhatti Indian Grill, Haandi’s menu features a number of delicious kebabs. Venture further on the menu to find a number of more unusual dishes, many of them worth a taste too, whether a goat-foot stew or Batair masala — quails cooked in curry sauce. Haandi has a reputation as a cab-driver hangout, and don’t cabbies always know the city’s best secrets? 113 Lexington Ave., 212-685-5200, haandinyc.com
There’s an extensive menu at the Saravana Bhavan, the Murray Hill outpost of an international chain, but it’s best to head straight for the dosa section. (You can’t miss it. Dozens are on offer.) Try the lightly fermented lentil-rice crepes as simply as you wish, or as adorned; the sweet version with nuts and raisins is a good bet, as is the rava dosa, made with wheat and rice. It’s a particularly fun stop in the mornings, say for an early Sunday brunch; for those curious about a South Indian breakfast, Saravana does excellent idli (steamed rice-lentil cakes) and medu vada (non-sweet doughnuts). While there’s nothing particularly romantic about the setting, its blond (almost Scandinavian-looking interior) gets pops of pink and orange from the large wall hangings, and the sizeable windows allow a peek at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 26th Street. 81 Lexington Ave., 212-679-0204, saravanabhavan.com
If you’re looking for a nicer meal out in Murray Hill, consider the sleek, modern-looking Chote Nawab, from Shiva Natarajan, the man behind many of the better Indian restaurants in New York City (Malai Marke, Bhojan, etc.). Its colorful, eclectic decor is a big step up from many of its nondescript neighbors. Chote Nawab features, among other things, the food of Kerala — which tends to be seafood-laced and very heavy on the coconut — as well as various Mughal specialties and rice dishes. Don’t miss the many shrimp curries, the flat-smashed tunde ke kabab, with minced lamb and spice, and the dry-fried okra. 115 Lexington Ave., 212-679-4713, chotenawabnyc.com
Also from Shiva Natarajan, the more casual Bhojan is fully vegetarian (and kosher as well), zeroing in on the food of India’s Gujarat and Punjab regions. For ease of ordering, try a thali — a full selection of dishes served in a platter — or for more variety, peruse the longer menu, which includes a number of chaats and small plates such as methi gota, or fenugreek leaf fritters. While the whole restaurant is vegetarian, many dishes can be made vegan-friendly, or prepared for exceptionally strict Jain vegetarianism, which excludes onions and garlic as well. The woodsy space has inspiring words from Swami Sivananda on its wall (“serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realize”) to match its approach to food. 102 Lexington Ave., 212-213-9615, bhojanny.com
There’s much to love about Indian street food, and you can find many of its greatest hits at the tiny Desi Galli. Choose from several chaats (try the Palak Patte Ki Chaat with fried spinach leaves, or the aloo papri chaat with spiced potatoes and the usual chutneys and yogurt) or soft taco-like kati rolls, whether stuffed with lamb (in several different varieties) or vegan channa masala. Samosas, “sliders,” and sweets round out the menu. There’s not much room to eat in, but the steady stream of customers is take-out heavy, so you still have a shot at a seat. Work or live nearby? Call ahead for takeout yourself, or opt for delivery through Seamless.101 Lexington Ave., 212-683-2292, desi-galli.com
This international superstore has an enviable collection of products from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, you name it — but it’s in South Asian ingredients that the shop really shines. Wander the tight aisles stocked from floor to ceiling and choose from dozens of curry powders, the various lentils and beans used in Indian cuisine, specialties such as “pan masala” (that candy-like breath freshener you’ll see near the exit of Indian restaurants), tons of chutneys and heat-and-serve Indian dishes — the choices are endless. 123 Lexington Ave., 212-685-3451, kalustyans.com