Last winter, Chintan Pandya, one of the most celebrated Indian chefs in the United States, was in his dining room at home, wondering what his next restaurant could be. His wife, Namrata, offered him a bowl of thinly sliced potatoes and a gourd commonly known as tindora in Hindi, sautéed with cumin, ginger, green chile and turmeric.
He was inspired by familiarity of the dish’s flavor.
Many cuisines have elevated their rural, rustic dishes — acquacotta, feijoada, mapo tofu — but provincial Indian food has yet to find its Provençal moment.
“At the culinary school I went to in India,” said Mr. Pandya, “we were never taught Meghalayan food, but we had to read Larousse Gastronomique and were taught about bouillabaisse, this fishermen’s stew, so exquisite and all that. But not our own food.”
His solution is Dhamaka, scheduled to open Feb. 14 — the day indoor dining is allowed again in New York City — in the Essex Market on the Lower East Side.
After Rahi, his modernist playground in Greenwich Village, and then his blockbuster follow-up Adda, a jewel-box space in Queens dedicated to what Mr. Pandya called “hard-core Indian” food, which attracted celebrity customers like Jennifer Lawrence, Questlove and the chef Wylie Dufresne, there was never any doubt that Mr. Pandya would open a third restaurant. Rahi’s creativity and Adda’s authenticity are merged in Dhamaka’s devotion to Indian intimacy.
“This is the other side of India, the forgotten side of India,” said the owner, Roni Mazumdar. “We always want to show this glossy, glitzy side of India. Think of Bollywood, the Taj Mahal, Diwali, Holi, spectacular days-long weddings. Where is there an audience for Indian subtlety?”
In India, the distance between home cooking and restaurant food is strictly maintained. As Mr. Mazumdar described the mentality, “If I’m going to eat what the villagers eat, I haven’t moved forward.” In response, the Dhamaka team has reclaimed much of that food, bringing a fine-dining sensibility to a cuisine that developed largely over the imprecision of open flames.
The menu includes begun bhaja, fried cubes of eggplant with kasundi sauce that is a staple of Bengali homes, and fried pomfret a fish that Mr. Pandya used to eat as bar food with co-workers after hours in Mumbai. There’s also macher jhol, the baby-shark curry that Mr. Mazumdar would ask his mother not to send to him in college care packages for fear that the smell would embarrass him in his dorm.
There’s the ragda pattice (mashed-potato patties with white-pea gravy) that Mr. Pandya would eat on the streets of his youth. He also made sure to include a Meghalayan boiled pork salad.
In the service approach, there is a feeling of the Indian concept of jugaad — a sort of improvised, make-it-work MacGyverism. Dishes arrive in clay pots, often with mismatched lids. Chicken pulao is served in a portable pressure cooker that is opened at the table. And an entire three-pound rabbit is cooked Rajasthani style and served with muth pyaaz (hand-crushed onion). Just one will be available per night, and even then only with 48 hours’ notice.
Almost everything will be cooked to order, although some dishes that require hours of preparation — like the Champaran meat that marinates for 24 hours and cooks for four, with a whole head of garlic — will have only 25 or 30 pots available each night.
“These dishes are where our hearts really lie, but they are our guilty pleasures,” Mr. Mazumdar said. “Because, sitting in Mumbai or Kolkata or Delhi, I’d feel better telling my friend I went for pizza rather than I went for Indian food. Everybody is heading West — Western ingredients, Western plating, Eurocentric vision and glory — and we’re walking in the opposite direction, representing everyday working-class Indians, not the globe-trotters.”
Mr. Pandya was more direct: “The goal is to un-bastardize Indian food.”
At Adda, Mr. Pandya became famous for ghar ka khana, or home-style, cooking. Asked if Dhamaka’s food has a similar catchall term, he said simply “asalee” — Hindi for “real.” The food is reminiscent of the family meals cooked for the staff at Adda, previously served only to the likes of the chef René Redzepi and the rest of his visiting team from Noma, in Copenhagen. The Dhamaka crew looks to Southern cuisine and soul food as a good reference point in the United States.
“Dhamaka is a deep dive into the food that’s not always considered fancy, but encapsulates the heritage and vibrancy of Indian cuisine’s rich history,” Mr. Mazumdar said.
Mr. Pandya added: “Indian chefs want to work with an Eric Ripert or a Gaggan Anand. We have never had a Joël Robuchon or a Thomas Keller. We were maybe ashamed of using original techniques that our forefathers have been using for years and years. It doesn’t feel like progress. We think using alien ingredients is innovation. But it is not. I’ve done it. It’s not good.”
In contrast to influential Indian chefs in the United States, like Maneet Chauhan and the late Floyd Cardoz — and the now-widespread popularity of modernized Indian cuisine — the Dhamaka team wants to bring Indian village food to the world, on their own terms. “We are questioning the entire way the cuisine has been projected to people,” Mr. Pandya said. “Indians and foreigners alike.”
Gone are Adda’s anchors of familiarity: no butter chicken, saag or samosas. Ditto the indignity of explanatory menu entries like “naan bread” or “chai tea.” In their place are dishes including goat neck biryani, stir-fried kidney and testicles, and a chicken kofta stuffed with an entire soft-cooked egg.
Dhamaka is a corner anchor of Essex Market, the only restaurant in the food hall to have its own entrance. Dhamaka — which means “boom” or “explosion” in Hindi — pops with vibrant colors, from an elaborate good-versus-evil mural above the 12-seat horseshoe bar to the brightly striped banquette upholstery in the 42-person dining room, with its cavernous 22-foot ceiling. The interior will be limited to 25 percent capacity for now, by state order; there is outdoor seating for up to 40.
If a goal of Mr. Pandya’s is to get non-Indian chefs to respect the cuisine as much as non-French chefs respect French food, Dhamaka’s experiment is showing early success. The begun bhaja, so common in Bengali homes, was developed by Eric Valdez, Rahi’s 28-year-old chef de cuisine, who is Filipino. And an Aperol-cantaloupe cocktail was developed by Yessenia Alvarez, Rahi’s beverage director, who is Dominican.
“They see positivity everywhere,” said Mr. Valdez, of the multicultural staff. “Not only in their own culture, but in outsiders like me who want to understand their culture because it helps me understand my own.”
Mr. Pandya applies the same cross-cultural outreach to his guests. To win over skeptics of his surprise-hit goat brains at Adda, Mr. Pandya played a little game with questioning customers.
“Do you like scrambled eggs?” he’d ask first, innocently enough. Everyone said yes, because who would dare say no? Then Mr. Pandya would seal the deal with another question diners couldn’t reject: “Are you adventurous?”
Dhamaka, 119 Delancey Street, 212-204-8616.
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