At Bhojan, Indian Spring
The word "bhojan" connotes a simple, home-cooked meal in Hindi, but looking around the shiny new Lexington Avenue restaurant of the same name made me doubt that anything as miraculous as homestyle food was going to emerge from the kitchen. The place is slick as can be: leather banquettes, modular lighting fixtures, and copper karahis (woks) hanging from the ceiling. Bhojan's limbu pani (salted lemonade) and chaas (buttermilk drink) are served in trendy mason jars, and the chaats are plated into ring molds to create neat cylinders. The gentrification of street snacks always makes me nervous.
But then here was a traditional Gujarati thali, a stainless-steel platter holding a score of little dishes around its circumference, the middle of the plate occupied by a pile of white rice, an airy puri, and a bit of pickle. One bowl was filled with a thin, white potage of warm, spiced yogurt, one of the most typical Gujarati dishes. It has the consistency of water but a tangy, milky, assertive flavor, best poured over rice and eaten, goopily, with the hands. Another contained a particularly Gujarati daal—daal dhokli to be exact, rarely found in New York, the lentils swimming with chewy noodle strips.
The restaurant recently opened in the part of Murray Hill sometimes known as Curry Hill, and serves both Gujarati and Punjabi vegetarian food. But the restaurant's heart seems to belong more to the former than the latter; although there are several Punjabi-style chaats, breads, and mains like saag paneer, the majority of the menu is dedicated to the foods of the western Indian state, with a few Mumbai snacks thrown in. It's tricky to generalize, but Gujarati food often carries a spice-balancing sweetness, from the unrefined sugar called jaggery, and is frequently meat-free.
Vegetarianism is relatively common throughout India, but it's even more prevalent in Gujarat, where approximately 60 percent of its residents are veg. Indian food expert Madhur Jaffrey has called the state's food "the haute cuisine of vegetarianism." I don't think she means that these dishes are particularly fancy, lacking, for instance, the flashy garnishes of Rajasthan's royal Moghul cookery. But they involve a marked sophistication: complex in flavor and requiring skill in the kitchen.
Bhojan's menu is divided into small plates and thalis, of which there are three: Gujarati, Punjabi, and ashram, an austere collection of dishes containing no onions or garlic. Don't fear the played-out "small plates" designation—the dishes are actually rather generous and the list mainly offers sharable street foods.
There are several Gujarati snacks here that can be found only at a handful of other New York restaurants (including Dimple, Vatan, Rajbhog, and Sukhadia's). Two popular chickpea-based snacks—dhokla and khandvi—are done well, the first a fluffy steamed cake made from fermented chickpea flour and topped with mustard seeds and green chiles, the second a pasta-like treat, the delicate yellow noodles rolled into spirals.
We considered an order of vada pav, the popular Mumbai street sandwich of a fried potato fritter in a buttered roll, but went for dabeli, the Gujarati version, instead—the squishy white bread harboring a potato cake liberally studded with peanuts and topped with raw red onion.
Of the flatbreads, we particularly liked methi thepla, the flaky dough shot through with the bitter green fenugreek. We marveled at the unfamiliar heft of the rotla—a very hearty flatbread made with millet flour. It tastes like what would happen if a Gujarati farmer and a Berkeley whole-grain enthusiast got together to bake. Served with a small dish of jaggery dissolved in ghee and spicy garlic chutney, it's a sugary-pungent adventure.
Chaats are middling, leaning more toward sweet than spicy. Skip the corn chaat, which doesn't quite work with formerly frozen niblets, and go for the dhokla bhel puri, the standard puffed rice, sev, potatoes, and chickpeas augmented by tiny bits of the chickpea cake, all of it drenched in date chutney and yogurt. Kachori chaat makes a nice change, the giant turnover stuffed with lentils and then doused in chutney, all crunchy-slippery and full of legume goodness.
Leaving aside Gujarat, even the Punjabi standards you find on every Indian menu in town taste uncommonly excellent: Malai kofta—vegetable balls in rich tomato sauce—is usually just an excuse to dump a vat of cream on some fried veggie matter. Here, the balls are freshly fried, the diced vegetables apparent in each one, and the gravy unctuous but also zingy and hot.
But don't neglect the thalis, which seem like real coups, an assembly of distinct regional dishes that make a complex and pleasurable meal. The Gujarati thali provides a dessert of shrikhand, an insanely rich pudding of yogurt strained until it's thicker and richer than you can imagine, then flavored with sugar, saffron, and sometimes cardamom. It's delicious, but make sure to save room for a second dessert.
That's because the front room of the restaurant is occupied by a small sweets shop, stocked with homemade mithai, or Indian confections. It's pretty hard to find good mithai in New York, mainly because many places either don't make them by hand or don't have high enough turnover to ensure the treats' freshness. Bhojan has neither of those problems—in fact, later at night, most of their goods sell out. These are some of the best you can find in New York, especially the kesar pedas—creamy saffron items that taste like Indian cheesecake—and the bright-white, ethereal coconut burfi.
We left completely full, carting leftovers and a box of mithai to eat the next day, the way you might depart from your favorite auntie's house. It turns out Bhojan is down-home after all.
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