I have a theory about ethnic food: if yelpers consistently whine about a restaurant’s service, the restaurant is almost surely awesome. If the service sucks and the place is still open—especially in a high-rent city like NYC—the food must be amazing, right?
Banjara, an Indian restaurant in the East Village, is a perfect example of my theory. The yelp reviews are generally very good (four stars, on average), but there’s a lot of griping about service in some of them. And I think that’s great: if a four-star place consistently loses a star for service, that means that the food is worth five stars, right?
Pretty much, yeah. Banjara, as suggested by the yelping mobs, seems to have its share of service issues: the restaurant lost the reservation for our party of six, the friendly-but-disorganized staff seemed to be in a perpetual state of chaos throughout the meal, and our bill passed through the hands of at least three different staff members before anybody ran the credit cards. But hey, the food was awesome, and the staff wasn’t mean or anything. Who really cares about anything else?
Our gang of six diners (including my fiancé and four single women) was led by a wonderfully opinionated (single) Indian-American woman who acted as our benevolent food dictator for the evening. Our lovely (and single… want me to arrange an introduction?) food dictator fed us plenty of tasty Indian standards: samosa appetizers, shaag paneer (spinach with cubes of cheese, $10.95), paneer makani (firm cubes of cheese in a moderately spicy onion-tomato-cream sauce, $13.95), rice, naan, lots of chutney, papadoms, and chicken vindaloo ($11.95). We even gorged on a pair of Indian desserts: gulab jamun (basically, deep-fried doughnut holes swimming in sugar syrup, $3.25) and rasmalai (firm, mild globs of cheese drowning in sweetened condensed milk). The desserts were far too sweet for my taste, but everything—appetizers, entrees, and desserts—was wonderfully well-executed, and served with a healthy dollop of friendly ethnic restaurant service chaos.
Two of the dishes, however, stood out above all the others, and are among the best foods I’ve eaten anywhere in NYC. The menu offered a pretty hilarious description of the phenomenal chicken dumpakht ($14.95): “dumpakht is a method of cooking by which the cooking vessel is sealed with pastry, resulting in a deliciously moist flavorful dish.” Yes, definitely “deliciously moist flavorful.” Imagine a spicy, creamy Indian version of chicken pot pie, topped with a delicious, freshly-baked crust of naan, and you’ll be close.
The adraki lamb chops ($20.95 for three big chops), marinated in a peppery ginger sauce, were an even bigger hit. As a half-Greek, I’ve eaten craploads of lamb in my life, and Banjara’s was easily the best I’ve ever had—perfectly spiced, blissfully charred-but-still-pink, outrageously tender. (Oh sh*t, my Greek ancestors are going to strike me down for complimenting somebody else’s lamb. I’ll stop now.)
On a subsequent visit (accompanied by a completely different educated, gorgeous, single woman… we should start a dating service, no?), we discovered a third incredible dish, okra do piazza ($12.95). I’ve never met a plate of okra that I didn’t like, but this one was special: whole pieces of okra sautéed in onions and dried mangoes, with just enough hot pepper to prevent the sweetness of the mango from overpowering the dish—amazing.
Since we were far too stuffed to order dessert on our second visit, the much-maligned staff brought us each a little scoop of ice cream—vanilla with a very gentle hint of passion fruit. Free ice cream?!? Hell yeah. Hey, maybe the service wasn’t so bad after all.
97 1st Avenue @ 6th, Manhattan
Subway: Astor Place (6 train) or 2nd Ave. (F train)