Although food critics’ anonymity seems to be disappearing faster than bluefin tuna, there are some real advantages to being incognito—or, more accurately, in my case, just totally unknown. One night, I was out with a group of Indian-American friends at Bhatti Indian Grill, a new Punjabi restaurant in Curry Hill, when owner and chef Gaurav Anand came over to ask us how we liked the food. After chatting with us about the restaurant’s open-fire grill called a bhatti, which he uses to sizzle his kebabs, he told us that kebabs are his real passion, but that Americans are so curry-centric that he felt he had to include a section of the gravy-based dishes. Aha! Now we knew why the kebabs were so much better than the curries, and the next time I was there, I skipped the latter without a second thought.
New York is certainly not wanting for Punjabi food—at any given Bombay Palace or Star of India, you’ll find the ubiquitous heavy curries that constitute most Americans’ understanding of Northern Indian food. And though we’re lucky to have plenty of hole-in-the-wall cabbie joints serving decent kebabs, pakoras, and samosas, mainly from the Pakistani side of the Punjab (the region was split during partition), Manhattan generally lacks thoughtful, home-style Punjabi food—a gap that Bhatti fills.
Northwestern Indian food was influenced by the Mughal invaders, hence the kebabs and clay-oven-baked flatbreads. Besides being lovers of grilled meat, Punjabis are stereotypically thought of as great dancers and partiers—in desi (South Asian) circles, they’re sometimes called “Funjabis,” and there’s even a comedy and talent show in India called Funjabbi Chak De! (which means, roughly, “Funjabbis, Go for It!”). Despite that reputation, Bhatti does not yet have its liquor license; it does, however, have some very lively kebabs.
The bhatti grill is not a piece of equipment, but an ultra-simple, ancient cooking method: an open fire, fueled with wood or charcoal. Since this is not possible in a restaurant kitchen, Anand places lava rocks in the gas grill fire, which he believes impart a smoky flavor and help regulate the heat, and sprinkles garam masala over the fire every now and then to bring up puffs of spicy smoke. The restaurant also employs a tandoori clay oven, which runs much hotter than the bhatti, and is used to make breads, like naan and roti, as well as a few of the kebabs.
Anand grew up in cosmopolitan Delhi, in a family of Punjabi Hindus. Before opening the restaurant, he says, he traveled extensively in Northern India, picking up recipes and techniques. Some of the dishes, however, like the daal bhatti, are from his mother’s kitchen. (I didn’t love that dish. Oh, the guilt!) Leaving aside the curries, you can order two or three different kebabs per person, plus a couple of baskets of bread, and go home satisfied. Choose from vegetarian options—paneer, stuffed mushrooms and potatoes, etc.—and carnivorous ones, limited to chicken, lamb, and seafood.
There’s no better way to start a meal than with a plate of pickled, grilled paneer, called achari paneer tikka. The squares of cheese look like slabs of campfire marshmallows, bright white with puffy, golden edges, and a tart, pickled bite that balances the paneer’s mild, milky flavor. Or choose the bharwaan (“stuffed”) mushrooms—the fat caps are filled with a thin smear of fresh cheese curd that melts into the dark mushroom juice. The dish is served with a sprinkle of cilantro and a copious amount of mint chutney. Oddly, everything is served with a copious amount of mint chutney.
As good as the vegetarian kebabs are, it’s the lamb that dazzles. The best kebab on the menu is also the most expensive: Bhatti ki chaamp weighs in at $20.95 for four medium, bone-in lamb chops, a bit pricey considering the other kebabs run about $10, but worth it if you, like me, adore nothing more than a good gnaw on a lamb bone. The chops are very tender and fat-edged, coated in spices and sizzled until caramelized in spots.
But most interesting is the famous gilauti kebab, offered as a kind of tribute to Tunde Miyan, one of Lucknow’s most famous kebab-makers. Lucknow was known as the City of the Nawabs—Muslim noblemen of the Mughal Empire—and the city is still famous for its royal Mughal cuisine. The story goes that this particular kebab was invented for a toothless Nawab who wanted lamb, but could no longer chew. So a clever (or terrified) cook minced lamb so finely that it resembled a paste, mixed it with spices and papaya purée to further tenderize it, and steamed the patties over an open fire. Anand says he visited Miyan and persuaded the master to teach him to make it and part with some of his distinctive spice mixture, which he now uses for his own gilauti kebabs. The small, pale pucks of meat go all silken in your mouth, like a marvelous, spiced pâté.
Other meaty standouts on the menu include bhatti da murgh—wonderfully tender, charred chicken thighs in a yogurt-based marinade—and kasoori methi ke tikkey, chicken that has also been tenderized in yogurt and brightened by a sprinkle of roasted methi, or fenugreek, which imparts a pleasantly bitter, vegetal aftertaste. On the seafood side, we especially enjoyed the fat prawns, spiced with zippy ajwain and green cardamom.
As for the curries, most are simply serviceable—dishes you can get better versions of elsewhere. I admire the fact that Anand has included, along with the Punjabi dishes, lesser-known curries like Goan chicken xacuti and Keralan meen moiley, but more care needs to be taken with them: The chicken xacuti is fine, but too sweet with coconut milk and lacking depth. Daal bhaati, which comes with an appetizing pat of melting butter and pile of ginger batons on top, tasted like any old daal. We did like the khatte baigan, though, a beautiful dish of stewed, stuffed eggplants that would please even a finicky, toothless Nawab.