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Vapo-Rub Lamb

Cooking With Camphor in Curry Hill

If certain restaurant locations are cursed, then the opposite must also be true: Some places are blessed. A case in point is the upstairs at 113 Lexington Avenue. For years it held East in the West, one of Manhattan's best Indian restaurants, with a steam table that blew nearby Curry in a Hurry out of the water. Now it's Haandi, the neighborhood's highest-profile Pakistani café, providing a more meaty and assertively flavored menu than its predecessor. The extravagantly windowed premises offer spectacular views of Lexington Avenue's river of yellow cabs.

An illuminated menu over the counter lists an impressive roster of chicken, goat, and mutton dishes. Unfortunately, virtually none are available. But luckily, the steam table is diverse and bounteous. Named after the wok-like vessel it's cooked in, chicken karahi ($4.99, like most dishes) is one of the milder choices, with a distinctive yellowish tomato sauce agreeably flavored with ginger and mild chile powder, omitting the complex welter of spices usually associated with South Asian cooking. Next to it you might find beef curry, the chunks soothingly tender and exhibiting none of the dry fibrosity often seen in stewed beef. Other frequently encountered specialties include paya—wobbly gelatinous cow feet that resolve into an oily gravy, and, for organ-meat lovers, a stir fry of kidneys and liver strewn with ginger and cilantro, making a very pretty dish. Sometimes there's also a scramble of brains that does a good imitation of a western omelet.

After many visits, the best steam table dish was an orange slurry of lamb and rutabagas, the mashed turnips furnishing a concentrated sweetness. Propelled by whole camphor pods that look like small shriveled prunes, the flavor is amazing, as if Mom had rubbed the lamb's chest with Vapo-Rub. Be sure to direct your attention to the glass shelf above the steam table, where deep-fried and clay oven specialties show up unannounced at intervals. One day tandoori quails ($3 each) flew in, rubbed inside and out with a fragrant masala, the long necks and extremities charred like some monster from The Outer Limits, while the breast remained succulent. Another day there was shami kebab ($1.25), impersonating the potato patties you often see at Indian restaurants. One bite demonstrated the distinction, however, revealing a gray interior something like falafel, made, according to the counter gal, from chicken and dal ground into a fine powder. Despite the wonder of its fabrication, the shami tasted a lot like sawdust. Pick chapli kebab ($2) instead, a rubbery puck of chopped chicken laced with enough red pepper to turn it pink, delectable, and scaldingly hot.

While a naan or roti comes automatically with the $4.99 vegetarian (don't bother) and $5.99 two-meats-plus-one-vegetable specials, other breads are good enough to be worth the extra expense. Aloo paratha ($2.50) sports a thin potato filling laced with lumpy whole spices like fennel seed and cumin, making for a jouncy culinary terrain. Just as good is lacha paratha ($1.99), a buttery flatbread that gives the croissant a run for its money. Most of the steam table selections are best scooped with bread, but if you must have rice, persuade the accommodating staff to let you substitute biryani for plain white rice (sometimes there's an extra charge). This beloved dish often stands alone as a meal in the windy and mountainous country that surrounds the Khyber Pass, merging tender bone-in pieces of chicken, basmati rice, and various spices into one of the most relentlessly beige concoctions I've ever seen.

Meanwhile, in the windy and mountainous country that surrounds Lexington Avenue, the yellow river eddies as hungry drivers swerve to the curb for carryout.


HAANDI
113 Lexington Avenue, 685-5200.
Open seven days 10 a.m. to midnight.
Cash only. Not wheelchair accessible.

 
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