Symbolized on the menu by a jolly dancing elephant sporting a baseball cap and cradling a ball in its upraised trunk, khushie means happiness in Punjabi. Khushie is also the name of a new and wonderful two-table Indian carryout on Essex Street. While such establishments usually marshal their offerings on a steam table, where the food gets tired and crusty after a while, Khushie is part of a new generation of fast-food places that has abandoned the practice. Taking a cue from Chinese restaurants, Khushie cooks all food to order, not just the breads, causing the curries to be fresh tasting and brightly colored. Of course, you have to wait five or 10 minutes for your order.
Another advantage of Khushie is a slightly more adventurous menu. Grounded in familiar Punjabi cooking, the bill of fare takes flight on a few far-flung dishes. Soaring like a condor is chicken kali mirch ($6.95), a stir-fry of poultry tidbits in a light creamy gravy shot with black peppercorns, producing a mouth-burn quite unlike that caused by chile peppers. According to Amal Naj in his landmark book Peppers, the use of black pepper in this manner probably indicates a recipe that predates the introduction of chiles to the subcontinent by the Portuguese in the 16th century. History aside, chicken kali mirch is one of the most exciting Indian dishes I’ve had in a long time.
Of course, the mother of all spicy concoctions is vindaloo, originating in the Portuguese-Indian colony of Goa. It was first made with pork and red wine—ingredients that are anathema to most Indians—but a teetotaling lamb recipe spread throughout India, eventually becoming a code word for hotness. Nevertheless, the dish as ordered in New York restaurants is often disappointingly bland. Not so at Khushie, where the potato-laden lamb sauce (goat is sometimes substituted) is profoundly fiery. Surprisingly better is the shrimp version ($12.95), which provides a better vehicle for the sharp clean flavors of the sauce. Hotter than either is another of the menu’s oddities, lamb Madras. Displaying the same scarlet hue as the vindaloo, it amps up the chile attack and then muddles it somewhat with sweet coconut.
Now for some mellower stuff. I’d be the last to order something as mundane as chicken curry at an Indian restaurant, but this plain-sounding dish ($6.95) is one of the best choices. The mercifully light gravy is rife with herbs, and the cook has managed to make boneless chicken interesting. Breads are another strong point, always delivered hot and thoughtfully brushed with oil just before their arrival. In order of preference, we found garlic naan, onion kulcha, and aloo paratha the most desirable ($2 each). Despite Punjabi cuisine’s reputation for gravy-drenched meatiness, it would be a mistake to ignore the vegetarian compositions, including baingan bharta ($5.95), Southern Indian roasted and smashed eggplant here rendered something like baba ghanoush. The restaurant is to be congratulated for not using frozen mixed vegetables in its navratan korma, and dredging around in a recent sample, I discovered green, perfectly cooked broad beans. In an Indian carryout! Even that old warhorse aloo gobi—potatoes and cauliflower—is turned out with superior flavor and delicacy, with the cauliflower completely devoid of the mushiness you’ve come to expect.
On the other hand, I’d be the last to quarrel with mushiness.