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Lunch Box

Fresh vegetarian cuisines at Curry Hill's newest spot

A "tiffin" is a multi-layered, cylindrical metal lunch box. A "wallah" is what you'd call a guy who races on foot through traffic to deliver your tiffin. Stick them together and you get Curry Hill's latest Indian restaurant. Tiffin Wallah hopes to bring your hot lunch right to the office someday, but for now, you'll have to settle for dining at the restaurant. The deep, narrow space is reminiscent of a New Orleans shotgun shack—the walls wainscoted a somber charcoal gray, above that a bumpy wall treatment like Braille on white index cards. Gleaming tiffins are marshaled by the front door, as if awaiting future deliveries.

The genius of Tiffin Wallah lies in its delivery of the three great vegetarian cuisines of India—Gujarati, the fleshless half of Punjab, and southern Indian. As an added advantage, the food is significantly fresher than at most Indian spots, because the cooks have a predilection for whipping things up on the spot rather than stockpiling them on a steam table.

The menu is strictly vegetarian, partly vegan, and kosher too. Its centerpiece is four $14 set meals—including bread, rice, curries, and condiments—that take the worry out of deciphering the complicated menu. All set meals are served dramatically on thalis, compartmentalized metal trays that will remind you of TV dinners (only good). The curry selection varies. One afternoon, the Punjabi thali featured an impressive saag paneer with plenty of fresh compressed cheese mingled with mustard greens, rather than the spinach used in most places. In addition to a lovely buttermilk soup, the Gujarati thali cradles undhiyu, a mixed-vegetable curry cooked so that the eggplant cubes remain firm, and the dudhi retains its fibrous allure. Also known as the bottle gourd, dudhi is one of the strange veggies preferred by Gujaratis. The thali also features a pool of reddish-brown date chutney that doesn't come from a jar, which is a major accomplishment.

Tiffins: standing guard and ready for duty
photo: Willie Davis
Tiffins: standing guard and ready for duty

The South Indian thali concentrates on the now-familiar masala dosa (a potato-filled crepe), idli (white dumplings shaped like small Frisbees), and uttapam (a spongy pancake rife with vegetables). There's also a thali called sapadu ("meal" in Tamil) that explores the coconut-based cooking of India's southernmost state, Kerala. Available only on weekends, it includes aviyal, a yogurt-thickened stew containing eggplant and plantain; rasam, a tart and salty tomato-and-tamarind soup; and a fresh coconut chutney shot with black mustard seeds.

Indians are snackers, and the menu provides plenty of opportunities. In contrast to the small dosa on the South Indian thali, the separately ordered article ($6) is a massive affair, two feet, three inches in length (we measured it against a dollar bill). The restaurant sells the potato filling for a dollar extra. That's OK, because most Indian patrons only want the dosa. A couple of chats (snacks) are available, including samosa chat ($4), a bowl smothering the tetrahedral potato empanada in tamarind sauce, onion, and cilantro. It's way good. Finally, the snack that driver and designated eater Scooter enjoyed the most was the spice-dusted masala cashews. "Look how many you get for $3," he exclaimed gleefully. If you're a fan of butter, you can get a small metal receptacle of ghee for $1 that improves everything you pour it on. "It makes everything taste like theater popcorn," my friend Gretchen gloated.

 
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