It's Bollywood for Your Tongue at Chote Nawab
My friend Bobby is an Indian food expert. So when I dragged him to Chote Nawab for the first time, he ran his practiced eye over the menu till it stopped at tunde ke kebab ($9). "This dish from Lucknow, in northeast India, was invented long ago for a toothless old royal family member who still craved lamb kebabs," Bobby told me. He went on: "And nowadays, the best restaurants in that part of India hire a special cook to make it. That's all he does."
About the size of a half-pound burger, the macerated lamb patty sizzles in a cast-iron skillet on a bed of purple onions, charred on both sides and crowned with cilantro. It has the damp slipperiness of a tartare, and a heavenly smell rises up as the app is delivered to the table. You'll never taste anything more tender.
Tunde ke kebab is one of several remarkable regional Indian dishes available at Curry Hill newcomer Chote Nawab. The restaurant is named after a 1961 Bollywood movie admired mainly for its music. Spelled with an extra "H," the film Chhote Nawab ("Little Master") stars beloved comedian Mehmood in an unfunny role about a man whose life goes from stupidity to wealth to a downfall hastened by racehorses and alcohol. "The film's not very good," Bobby noted. Luckily, the food at the restaurant is.
Shiva Natarajan owns the place, a restaurateur who has planted three other establishments on the same block in as many years, bright and colorful restaurants that have diversified the local Indian menu—but also raised the average dining tab. Occupying a corner space at East 28th Street and Lexington Avenue, Chote Nawab is jazzily decorated, with bright murals coating the concrete walls. One features a reproduction of a poster from the movie, others show Indian architecture in floor-to-ceiling photorealist displays. Although a bit gaudy, the restaurant is a convivial hang.
Another dish that had a table of Indian food fanatics drooling was shrimp pappas ($17). Succulent crustaceans rear upright like sea horses in a creamy sauce thickened with dried kokum, a fruit native to South India, conferring tartness without a trace of harshness. While that dish hails from Kerala at India's southern tip, dum kokur is from far northern Indian, and the menu brags, "Nothing like a good chicken curry on the bone." From Hyderabad, the Silicon Valley of South India, and standing in sharp contrast to the coconutty sauces that dominate much South Indian cooking, comes dalcha ($16), a hearty stew that would almost be at home in Scotland, with lamb and lentils braised till the two become one.
The menu's most festive dish is also from Hyderabad: dum biryani ($15 to $19), a variation on the classic South Asian rice pilaf. It arrives in a dutch oven that has been decorated around the lid with a strip of dough. As it cooks, the dough rises and seals in the flavors. Don't discard it—the pastry strip is one of the prizes of the dish, which easily feeds three or four. Although what's inside the pot is not much to look at (I've seen other biryanis that involved boiled eggs, parti-colored rice, and intricate layering schemes), the flavor is rich and deep, and the rice imparts a lingering burn on the tongue.
Goat is the tastiest of several meat choices for this biryani, though you might find yourself cursing as you try to navigate around the bones, extracting small morsels of meat. In novel fashion, and perhaps to make up for its lack of visual beauty, you get two sauces to further moisten the rice—one, a yogurt raita and the other a lentil sauce with the faint scent of peanuts. Use both copiously.
The section entitled "Vegetables" is the menu's only disappointment. What you get is slightly reworked renditions of such Mughal-style standards as aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), malai kofta (vegetable dumplings, pale and bland), and palak paneer (spinach and cheese). At Chote Nawab, these function mainly as side dishes. The exception is Hyderabadi bagara baingan mirchi ($14), eggplant in an African-tasting peanut sauce.
But don't miss the breads. A fellow diner ooh-ed and aah-ed over the roomali roti ($4, two pieces), thin as a silk handkerchief. I dug the peshwari naan, a bread popular in Mumbai that name-checks the capital of a tribal region of Pakistan. When you bite into this, out tumble nuts and dried fruits, and you can almost hear the reconnaissance drones flying overhead.
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