The sitar’s metallic sizzle and the tabla’s frantic thwap assail us as we slosh our way into Banjara. Occupying a double storefront decorated with hundreds of peewee mirrors, this new Indian restaurant is the largest and most fashion-forward on the 6th Street strip. Seated at a pleasant window table, we watch delivery bicycles wobble through the rain, their baskets heaped with curry.
Twenty-five years ago three Indian restaurants appeared on the south side of the street, owned by immigrants from a single region in Bangladesh. Now 26 run along both sides of the block and spill onto adjacent avenues. While the old rumor that the curries flow underground in pipes connected to a common kitchen has never been verified, a glance at the menus posted outside indicates a frustrating sameness to the food, which mixes Mughal and Punjabi fare. Indeed, with the exception of the vegetarian Madras Cafe, which jeers at the others from its perch on the wrong side of Second Avenue, there hasn’t been much culinary innovation since tandoori chicken caused a sensation 15 years ago. Meanwhile, resourceful restaurateurs in other parts of town have added South Indian iddly and dosai, fiery Chettinar chicken, and otherworldly Indian vegetables like ashgourd and snake squash to their menus. On 6th Street, iddly has never meant diddly.
When the dishes begin to arrive, the most surprising is dumpakht ($12.95), a pie with a nan-like crust stretched over the mouth of a copper vessel. Underneath lies a bed of boneless chicken blanketed with a nut-fragrant beige sauce. Its resemblance to an English meat pie is no coincidence—while the name is Persian, the dish is Anglo-Indian, popularized by military officers of the British raj. Still, dumpakht’s delicious, and the crust eliminates the need to order extra bread to go with it. There’s also a decent vegetarian version crammed with potatoes, zucchini, and orange squash—something of an oddity in a menu that, like the rest of the street, favors meat and poultry over vegetables.
The Banjara are Indian gypsies who weave the mirrored fabric familiar to any patron of Pier 1. Though the restaurant uses their wayfaring as a metaphor for its own culinary adventuresomeness, the menu varies from neighboring establishments not in its breadth, but in its thoughtful and improved versions of 6th Street classics. The usually dry alu gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) is transformed into phool aur aloo ki subzi ($7.95) through addition of peas and a pungent red sauce, while lamb vindaloo ($9.95) arrives smirched with a thick gravy a notch more fiery than usual, and meat chunks more tender by a mile. A daring meatless biryani features dried fruit, fried egg, and too-rubbery homemade cheese in a buttery rice matrix.
But Banjara’s greatest contribution may be its resuscitation of tandoori-cooked meats. Though its radioactive glow never faded, the scarlet chicken that’s the signature of North Indian restaurants citywide has become increasingly desiccated over the last decade—has fear of salmonella prompted universal overcooking? Banjara slathers on the yogurt-and-spice mixture, and thus the quartet of perfectly barbecued lamb chops in adraki chop ($15.95) remains spectacularly moist and flavorful. The tandoori chicken ($9.95) is toothsome too, though faded to a somber camel color. Believe me, you won’t miss the red.