Gravy, Gravy, Gravy


A panoramic window peers into the tandoori chamber, offering a cinematic view of an elderly chef, her head swaddled in white linen, method-ically handclapping dough into round nans. Using what looks like a white catcher’s mitt, she pitches them into the vertical clay oven and, minutes later, plucks out the smoldering breads with a hooked stick, stockpiling them beside the pit. Such is the popularity of these magnificent loaves that a runner is kept busy at peak times ferrying them to the tables of eager diners. Fragrant with toasted sesame and finished with a lick from the tallow pot, they’re the best nans you’ve ever tasted.

Meaning “taste” in Punjabi, Swad is the newest steam-table joint on a stretch of Coney Island Avenue that’s become the center of Brooklyn’s Pakistani community. Partly as a result of the nocturnal employment of many immigrants, this area has turned into one of the city’s great 24-hour zones, with groceries, video stores, and travel agencies open far into the evening, and cafés and barbershops open even later than that. One of the great pleasures of the neighborhood, in fact, is emerging after a late supper to find the barbershops still thronged with customers and kibitzers. Swad’s walls are adorned with rustic paintings showing pastoral activities, while the steam table up front contains a broader-than-usual selection of vegetarian and meat-bearing dishes. While some are familiar from New York’s Indian restaurants, many of the more interesting choices are uniquely Pakistani.

Rice is treated not as an accompaniment, but as a meal in itself. Beige colored and dotted with pieces of tender chicken, biriyani ($4.50) swarms with spices, a legacy of the ancient trade routes that wind through the Hindu Kush. Spices are used so luxuriantly that they’re deployed whole, as if someone had grabbed handfuls from a passing truck and flung them into the pot. Swad’s biriyani contains entire cloves, carda-mom pods, black peppercorns, and even nut- megs, making an intensely flavorful dish. Eating it is like picking your way through a minefield.

Another Pakistani passion is paya ($5), cow feet braised into an oily and gummy stew loaded with bits of skin, cartilage, and integument, like an unfinished batch of mucilage. More a savory dip for nan than a stand-alone dish, this favorite is often eaten for breakfast. Another oddity, for me at least, is the chicken meatballs, cayenne-flecked beauties that bob with boiled eggs in a tomato puree that constitutes a light gravy by Swad’s standards.

Every day new dishes ($4 to $6) appear on the steam table. One late Sunday evening we enjoyed a curry of lamb and bitter melon, its quinine bite sweetened with masses of caramelized onions. Another time there was a gingery and thickly gravied goat curry, while a few days later a soupy dish of long green squash dotted with jalapeños left a lasting impression. Don’t think that all the action is on the steam table, though. Above on the glass shelf are estimable room-temperature selections, including especially good masala kingfish fillets, potato patties laced with red pepper, and “steam roast” chicken ($2.50). This tandoori variation is baked in a steam-filled oven, which produces a sweet and succulent bird that’s a little harder to spot on the shelf: it’s not the usual radioactive red.

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