Some people must actually enjoy the anonymity of airport and hotel restaurants, or there wouldn’t be so many of them. Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, comes to mind. Guys like Bingham put up with bland décor and unrealistic prices as a marker of their high-flying lives. If the food’s OK, so much the better. But that’s hardly the point.
Bingham would probably have a ball at Junoon, a new, upscale Indian restaurant in the Flatiron District, which has about as much character as an executive lounge in the New Delhi airport.
“Junoon” means “passion” or “obsession” in Hindi, and attention to detail certainly comes through in the service. If only so much enthusiasm had gone into the monochromatic beige décor. Yes, there’s the “Junoon walk,” a 50-foot passage anchored by a reflecting pool (which has since been filled with rocks, perhaps because the scum atop the water was unseemly). But couldn’t the management have at least situated the unique glass-encased “spice room” in the spacious dining room? Instead, the chamber containing all the restaurant’s seasonings and spice blends is located next to the restrooms downstairs. Skimp on the drinking and you might miss it completely.
The food at Junoon, though, is deftly executed by Punjab-born chef and cookbook author Vikas Khanna. But instead of spanning India’s regional cuisines, the menu highlights five distinct Indian cooking methods: the tandoor (clay oven), sigri (open fire pit), handi (curry), tawa (cast-iron preparations), and patthar (stone cooking). Rustic food, however, still comes at a pretty price—about $80 a person, excluding wine.
Spending that kind of money, you don’t get merely one waiter for the table. There’s one for every diner. Maybe it’s us, but it felt awkward to have a throng of servers around exchanging glances before simultaneously setting plates on the table. It’s infantilizing to have someone spoon rice onto plate after plate. So is being told that Indian food might be a bit spicy. Really? Indian food can be spicy?
In fact, very few dishes at Junoon are spicy, save for the Junoon yellow daal tadka ($12), which is as good as lentils can get. Certainly not the $14 piri-piri shrimp, which I was warned about, though they were well-cooked and accompanied by a chunky avocado salsa. Murg tikka mirza hasnu ($12), succulent cubes of chicken flavored with garam masala, wasn’t hot either, but it’s a good bang for your buck—unlike the $10 “tree of life” fried cauliflower, consumed in five bites, or the $11 palak patte ki chaat, a toddler-size handful of flavorless deep-fried spinach leaves. The menu also features some totally unique dishes, like the $12 kele aur matar ki goli: Plantains and shell peas are puréed into little orbs and rest in a fried taro nest like miniature Easter eggs.
Khanna’s saucework is impressive, clearly distinguishing the food from that of the local curry joint (if the prices weren’t an immediate tip-off). Halibut moily ($32) balances creamy coconut with curry leaves and mustard seeds, while $17 Punjabi kadi, squishy vegetable patties, arrive in a creamy asafetida-flavored sauce. They are a better option than the nadru kofte ($17), three lonely, dense lotus-root dumplings hiding under a veil of creamy tomato and cardamom.
There could have been more pronounced lobster flavor in the $33 tandoori, as the two tails were cloaked under cumin and spice. But the patthar-cooked lamb shoulder ($28) flavored with papaya juice and garam masala was very tender and offers a reason to return to the cooking methods of yesterday. Desserts aren’t to be missed, either. A delicious kulfi trio ($12) embraced cardamom, fig, and paan leaf, while a passion-fruit bombe ($12) was enlivened by gelatinous basil seeds subtly flavored with coriander.
Junoon is located directly across Madison Square Park from Tabla, Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz’s recently shuttered upscale Indian restaurant. Comparisons between the two are inevitable. While Tabla was full of joie de vivre, Junoon always left me wanting more. It’s too high-reaching and too pretentious. Its priorities, and its soul, are lost somewhere up in the air.
More photos here: Inside Junoon: Upscale Indian in the Flatiron District