Passage To India
Thanks to the growing popularity of Indian food locally, you no longer have to visit the subcontinent to enjoy a variety of savory and authentic dishes
By Nelly Edmunson Gupta
Featuring Photography by Michael Polito
The food of India is like the country itself: hot, vibrant, and colorful. My husband, Rishi, is Indian, and I have been to India four times. Rishi says food there is more flavorful, and it’s true; perhaps there’s something special in the soil. But if a trip to the subcontinent isn’t in your immediate future, don’t despair, because there’s never been a better time for those of us who live in Westchester to find tasty Indian food right in our own backyards.
“There are now Indian restaurants in most major towns in the county,” says Darshna Dave, who grew up in Bombay and now lives in Ardsley with her husband and three children. “Unless a new restaurant opens in Manhattan, there is no need for us to go into the city for Indian food since there are now enough Indian Restaurants here.”
Indian food is as diverse as the country itself, but it is the cuisine of Northern India that dominates most local menus. However, Westchester’s growing and increasingly diverse Indian community (approximately 10,000 people) is prompting many restaurants to broaden their menus to include more dishes from the South and other regions.
Generally speaking, the dishes of the North rely more heavily on milk and milk products. As a result, sauces are richer and creamier, and foods often are cooked in butter or ghee (clarified butter). In Southern India, sauces tend to be more liquid and pungent, sometimes getting creaminess and body from ground nuts. As a basic rule, the farther south you go, the spicier the food. Wheat and, therefore, bread is a staple in Northern India, while rice is a main component of Southern and Eastern meals. Someone wise once said that “trying to eat Indian food with cutlery is like trying to make love through an interpreter.” The best way to enjoy an Indian meal is to sop up the flavorful sauces with delicious Indian bread.
In addition to geography, India’s diverse religious and cultural heritages are also reflected in its cuisine. Many, but by no means all, Indians are vegetarians, and most restaurants offer a huge variety of meatless or vegan dishes. India also has a huge Muslim population, and some restaurants serve only meats considered halal (prepared according to Islamic guidelines) and do not serve alcohol, although most will allow you to bring your own.
Although there are marked culinary variations from region to region, the basic components of an Indian meal usually include legumes, regional vegetables, pickles, chutneys, rice or bread, and sometimes fish or meat. What really holds the diverse cuisines together is the aromatic and flavorful spices, which have always been India’s greatest commodity. The most important spices in Indian cuisine include asafetida, hing (the resin from a root similar to a carrot), black mustard seeds, cardamom, chili pepper, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, coriander, and turmeric. When looking for an Indian restaurant, how—and where—does one begin?
If you’re new to Indian cuisine but eager to try it, a lunch buffet can be a good bet, allowing you to sample a variety of dishes at a reasonable cost, and most of the restaurants listed here offer one daily. Note, however, that you do risk eating food that’s been left in chafing dishes too long for its own good; breads might not be at their fresh, fragrant best, and tandoori specialties can dry out quickly. Additionally, most buffet fare is not heavily spiced, in order to make it palatable even to those who are not used to ethnic food.
Here’s a look at some of the better-known established and new Indian restaurants in the county.
30 Division St., New Rochelle
In a space that formerly housed Tandoori Taste of India, Coromandel’s ambitious owners have pulled off a surprisingly tasteful mix of lush colors and startlingly loud patterns (faux-tiger banquettes, anyone?). It all manages to look quite appetizing, with more than a good dose of subcontinental joie de vivre.
Many Indian ex-pats claim that this is one of the best Indian restaurants in Westchester (my husband concurs), but even newcomers appreciate the refreshingly diverse menu and deft spicing here. Signature dishes include the aromatic calamari Coromandel, in which the sweet squid meat is given a fast stir-fry to preserve tenderness and is then garnished with curry leaves and ginger, and a Kerala fish curry that simmers chunks of talapia or swordfish with ginger and tamarind.
Coromandel’s lunch buffet offers a few more interesting dishes than do most, with excellent vegetarian options, but it really scores points for its attention to familiar dishes. Waiters circulate with platters of fresh-from-the-oven tandoori chicken and nan here, a treat for diners accustomed to food that’s been left to languish at the buffet station.
Prices: Lunch buffet $10 Mon.-Sat., $12 Sun.; lunch boxes to go $6-$7. EntrÃ©es $10-$19. Hours: Lunch from 12-2:30 daily; dinner from 5-10 daily.
16 Broadway, Valhalla
(914) 997-6090; www.mughalpalace.com
Valhalla’s miniscule main street (broadway) includes an American bistro, a burger-wings joint, a red-sauce Italian eatery, and Mughal Palace, an Indian restaurant that never quite fills all its seats, though it should, considering the caliber of its dishes.
The 50-seat restaurant, featuring Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, is the handiwork of two ex-Malabar Hill servers, Mohammad Alam and Abdul Jalil. The pair chose the location because of its proximity to the Taconic (across the street and a thin greenway) and a Metro-North station (adjacent to the Taconic). “Plus,” says the youthful Alam (age 31), “there are not many Indian eateries in central Westchester.”
Sample the lunchtime buffet (the spice-happy lamb rogan josh, Indian chicken wings, or the vegetarian aloo gobi dipped in the chilly yogurt dressing raita are solid choices), and you’ll realize Mughal Palace is pretty darn good. The Northern cuisine offered, with an emphasis on bread and meats, appeals to the American palate more than that of the Southern cuisine (more fish dishes and hotter spices). “But our chef is from Delhi,” notes Alam, “so we have our fair share of Southern Indian items.” These include the avial (eggplant, squash, potatoes, and yams in a coconut sauce with curry leaves), Mangolorian prawns (a tangy coconut stew of black tiger shrimp), and murgh Mangolorian (boneless chicken stew).
For dinner, the restaurant offers numerous specials like sweet mango chicken, chana sag (chickpeas and spinach in a cream sauce, perfect with a toasty triangle of nan or onion kulcha), and a fried vegetable cutlet.
And, with so many options, what does Alam choose to eat? “I like it all, unless it’s an occasion when I’m in the mood for non-Indian. Then I’ll just order pizzas for the whole crew.”
Prices: Lunch buffet $9.95 Mon.-Sat., Sun. brunch $12.95; appetizers $3.50-$10; entrÃ©es $11-$21 (some dinner specials are slightly higher); desserts: $3.50. Hours: Lunch 11:30-2:30 Mon.-Sat., 12-3 Sun.; dinner 5-10 Mon.-Thurs., 5-10:30 Fri.-Sat., 5-9:30 Sun.
2223 Central Park Ave., Yonkers
Patang’s chef Lal Singh is a native of punjab, and the restaurant takes its influence from this northern province. Lamb is extremely popular in the region, and Patang offers a terrific selection of lamb-based dishes, including a lamb babami (cooked in a lightly spiced almond sauce) and saagwala (cooked with the rich spinach purÃ©e that is another regional specialty). Owner Jessie Dhillon and her partners have added new dishes to the menu, such as mango chicken, Indian-spiced lamb chops, and chicken “lollipops”—kid-friendly wings that are marinated in a mild sauce then fried crisp. The restaurant also cooks a number of popular Southern Indian specialties like dosa on weekends.
The lunch buffet here is extensive and offers a particularly interesting juxtaposition of textures, tastes, and colors. On a recent weekday, the choices at Patang included both a tomato-based vegetable shorbas (soup), vegetable pakoras (deep-fried chickpea-flour fritters), dal makhani (a creamy purÃ©e of spiced black lentils); paneer bhurji (fried cheese with nuts), lamb curry, tandoori chicken, and the popular butter chicken (a very mild version of tandoori served in a butter-based sauce).
Patang means kite in Hindi, and the restaurant’s owners have used kites as a lighthearted theme in the restaurant’s earth-toned dining room.
Prices: Lunch buffet $10 Mon.-Fri., $14 Sat.-Sun.; entrÃ©es $10-$18. Hours: Lunch 11:30-2:30 Mon.-Fri., noon-3:30 Sat.-Sun. Dinner 5-10 Sun.-Thur., 5-10:30 Fri.-Sat.
1550 Central Park Ave., Yonkers
Owner Akhtar Mir cooked in Argentina,Colombia, Italy, England, and Turkey before he came to Yonkers two years ago to open ZafrÃ¡n, and these far-flung influences enliven the restaurant’s intriguing menu. A sophisticated blend of ingredients and cooking techniques are hallmarks of the food here, evident in dishes like the velvety shrimp bisque garnished with spicy shrimp tidbits, and the tandoor steak au poivre that’s first seared and then cooked on top of (not in) the tandoor oven and served with chimichurri, the pungent garlic-and-herb condiment of Argentina. ZafrÃ¡n is even successful in co-opting the Italian culinary vernacular, and diners are charmed by dishes like the tandoori salmon with farfelle pasta garnished with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pepperoncini oil. Desserts here are a particular pleasure, with pistachio tiramisu and mango soufflÃ© joining more traditional Indian offerings.
In addition to lunch and dinner, ZafrÃ¡n offers an afternoon British/India-style high tea. Served on English china, this spread includes, among other things, cucumber sandwiches, scones with homemade crÃ¨me fraÃ®che and jam, and a range of popular Indian appetizers like pastry-wrapped tandoori shrimp and samosas. The offering is so hearty, the restaurant’s slogan is, “Come to tea at ZafrÃ¡n, but cancel your dinner reservations.”
ZafrÃ¡n is in the process of obtaining a liquor license, but until then, it is BYOB. A word of advice: ZafrÃ¡n is difficult to find; use MapQuest or call beforehand for directions. But do make the trip; the food is reward enough. Top that with the charm of its owners—and you may make this a weekly routine.
Prices: Lunch platters $10; entrÃ©es $14-$29. High tea, which must be booked in advance, is $20 per person with a minimum of six people and is served between 2:30-5:30. Hours: Lunch 12-2:30, dinner 5:30-9 Tue.-Sun.; closed Mon.
142 Fifth Ave., Pelham
This intimate 58-seat glass-frosted restauant, which opened in 2000, has become known for extremely friendly and accommodating service. (The restaurant has even been known to cook up burgers and fries for unadventurous kids on request.) Rangoli means both the complex geometric patterns that Hindus create with colored rice-flour or sand to decorate their homes during festivals, and also the high-spirited “festival of colors” where celebrants dance, feast, and douse each other with colored water (that practice is happily forgone at the restaurant, so feel free to wear white).
An order of the shrimp Rangoli appetizer, redolent of garlic, mustard, and curry leaves, is almost de rigeuer here, and devotees of saag paneer shouldn’t miss Rangoli’s awesomely rich version made of creamy spinach and melt-in-your-mouth homemade cheese. Raan, a dish popular in India but not often seen stateside, is also a great order: leg of lamb is first marinated in a complex spice paste, then braised with ginger and whole spices before being roasted in the tandoor oven and shredded. Co-owners Christopher Hickey and Som Nagpal serve mainly Northern Indian cuisine but have lately begun to offer some
dishes from India’s Southern tip, like konju pappas, Kerala-style (shrimp cooked in a coconut-milk sauce flavored with curry leaves and smoked tamarind).
Purists shun the idea of eating Indian food without bread, and the variety of unusual offerings here are particularly tempting. Pudhina paratha, a whole-wheat bread flavored with fresh mint, is delightful. Or consider the crisp onion-and-black-pepper kulcha or the house nan stuffed with nuts and dried fruit. Desserts are also particularly inviting, including a carrot pudding studded with cashews and raisins and Punjabi kulfi, a milky, icy sherbet flavored with saffron, pistachios, and green cardamom seeds.
Prices: Buffet lunch is $10 Mon.-Sat., $12 Sun; a la carte entrÃ©es range from $10-$22. Hours: Lunch daily noon-3; dinner Sun.-Thur. 5-10, Fri. and Sat. 5-11.
144 E. Post Rd., White Plains
Although he had studied cooking in India, it was diplomacy rather than food that originally brought Bengal Tiger owner Simson Kalathara to the U.S. The Kerala native worked at the Indian Consulate in New York City before opening the restaurant some 30 years ago. As an ode to his days in the diplomatic service, Kalathara has mixed prints of famous traditional Indian art and decorations with photos of famous American politicians.
Bengal Tiger prides itself on producing authentic Northern Indian flavors, and classics like murgh tikka masala (chicken roasted in the tandoor oven and served in a creamy tomato-and-coriander sauce) and channa sag (chickpea-and-spinach purÃ©e with mild curry spices) are here in excellent form. Of the dishes cooked in the tandoor oven, the chicken is some of the best around, and vegetarians can all hail paneer seekh kebab, a dish that gives cubes of India’s dense, fresh paneer cheese the flavorful tandoori treatment. Kalathara turns to his Southern Indian roots when it comes to the restaurant’s nightly specials; Chennai prawns (tiger shrimp sautÃ©ed with fresh tomato, coriander, garlic, scallions, and curry leaves) and murgh plum dopiaz (white-meat chicken marinated in ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and garnished with onions and plums) take diners off the beaten track. A variety of dosa, the paper-thin rice-flour crepes wildly popular with fans of the subcontinent, are also served on weekends.
A wine list with 100 selections is an almost unheard of boon for an Indian restaurant; you can even try the wines of India’s Bangalore district here.
Kalathara’s children recently opened Ambadi (141 E. Post Rd., 914-686-2014), specializing in small plates of Indian street food, right across the street. The family also operates Bengal Grocery (914-686-5720), specializing in Indian ingredients and prepared foods, next door.
Prices: Lunch buffet $12.95 Mon.-Fri., $14.95 Sat., $19.95 Sun. Lunch and dinner entrÃ©es $13-$28. Hours: Lunch 11:30-2:30 daily; dinner 5-10:30 Tues.-Sat., 5-10, Sun. and Mon.
19 N. Broadway, Tarrytown
Javed Keen’s family has 40 years’ experience with restaurants in Manhattan’s “Curry Hill” (Lexington Avenue between 27th and 30th Streets), and, when he opened CafÃ© Tandoor in 2001, he had definite ideas about what he wanted: for one, a hip, Greenwich Village-like feel, which he gets in downtown Tarrytown with doors that open the whole front of the restaurant to the sidewalk in good weather. The interior of the small, 60-seat restaurant is spare and modern, with mango-colored walls reflected in numerous mirrors.
Keen is constantly revamping the menu to include new items, many of which put a subcontinental twist on American favorites. He recently added tandoor wings, a playful take on Buffalo chicken wings that mixes traditional Indian spicing with his own version of blue-cheese sauce. Breads here are particularly inventive, including a very popular nan, flatbread lightly flavored with rosemary and garlic.
Meats at the restaurant are all halal, and about a quarter of the menu is vegetarian, making the restaurant popular with a cross-cultural section of the Indian and Pakistani community. No alcohol is served, but customers can BYOB or avail themselves of some non-alcoholic beverages like dough (a sweet yogurt drink flavored with dried mint and lightened with seltzer) or the house-made masala black tea infused with cardamom, cloves and a hint of black pepper. CafÃ© Tandoor eschews the usual lunch buffet, instead supplementing the menu with reasonably priced platters that let customers mix-and-match two or three popular dishes like chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi muttar (potatoes, cauliflower and peas in a light curry sauce), and tandoori specialties.
Prices: Lunch $7.50-$10.50; dinner entrÃ©es $10-$25. Free delivery is offered from Irvington to Sleepy Hollow. Hours: Lunch 12-3; Dinner 5-10, Mon.-Thur., 5-11 pm, Fri. and Sat.; Sun. from noon to 10.
145 E. Main St., Elmsford
Recently acquired by the owners of Jaipore in Brewster and Chola in midtown Manhattan, Malabar Hill has already made a name for itself by approaching Indian food with more sophistication and playfulness than is the norm. Simple Southern Indian standards alone could make a delightful meal here. Excellent starters include Masala dosa, the South’s ubiquitous rice-batter crÃªpe rolled and stuffed with spiced potatoes (the menu notes that it’s one of Martha Stewart’s favorites), and utthapam, an Indian-style lentil pancake bursting with mild green chilies, tomatoes, and onions. Goa fish curry offers halibut cooked in a complex, delightfully rich sauce of coconut milk, tamarind, tomatoes, and chilies. Familiar standards, like the searingly hot vindaloo, tandoor meats, and rice-based biryani dishes are also excellent, and an extensive list of non-meat dishes classifies selections as either vegan or vegetarian.
Service stutters here on crowded weekend evenings, but low-key surroundings and well-spaced tables keep it pleasant, and the menu provides diverting cross-cultural notes (think Ravi Shankar and the Beatles) and some amusing typos that will keep you entertained while you try to flag down a server. Buffet lunch or brunch is a good alternative for a relaxing meal.
Prices: Lunch buffet $10 Mon.-Sat., $13 Sun. EntrÃ©es $10-$17. Hours: Lunch 12-2:30 daily; dinner 5:30-10 Sun.-Thurs, 5:30-10:30 Fri-Sat.
77 Knollwood Rd., Greenburgh
The large, 120-seat dining room at Royal Palace is adjoined to a 180-seat function room that’s often booked for Indian weddings, Diwali parties, and other celebrations, giving the restaurant a lively buzz and an authentic feel from Indian residents dressed to the nines in traditional clothing.
The menu here is traditional Punjabi, albeit with a number of original flourishes appreciated by Indian ex-pats and newcomers to the cuisine alike. The restaurant’s take on the ubiquitous saag paneer is a very popular tomato paneer in which fresh cheese is bathed in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, turmeric, coriander, and green chilies. Other popular dishes include mango chicken (boneless cubes of chicken cooked with mango pulp, red chilies, ginger, mint, and curry leaves) and sarson ka saag (a meltingly smooth broccoli rabe-and-spinach dish cooked with onions, tomatoes, and curry spices).
Prices: Lunch buffet $12 Mon.-Sat., $13 Sun. EntrÃ©es $10-$21. Hours: Lunch daily 11:30-3:30 pm; dinner daily 5-10.
Nelly Edmundson Gupta, a Dobbs Ferry-based writer, has had articles published in The Journal News, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Parents magazine.