During his childhood in the Punjab region of India, Jessi Singh, executive chef and owner of the recently opened Babu Ji (175 Avenue B; 212-951-1082), experienced the perfect recipe for chef training. He had access to a plethora of local ingredients like fruits, vegetables, and water, but a lack of technology — electricity and refrigeration, to be specific — forced him and his family to become creative with every part of the cooking process. As a result, from a young age, Singh established a connection with cooking.
His first job was making yogurt on his family’s farm and tending to the buffalo, responsibilities that helped him appreciate ingredients and understand the value of using every part of the animal. “I have a lot of respect for food. In the Western world, food means everything. It has to look very nice, clean, perfect. But back home, food means if it’s good, no matter what you eat it. And it’s seasonal. You can only have foods in season,” Singh tells the Voice.
Singh’s foray into the world of professional cooking led to opening a series of restaurants in Melbourne, Australia, including the first Babu Ji. These days, his connection to his home country remains intact. All of the recipes served at his restaurants have been handed down to the chef through his family; you won’t find a roster of chicken, beef, or pork stews with meaningless identification numbers that seemingly exist to ease people in to their first experience with Indian cuisine.
“It’s ‘new’ Indian, where we focus on quality ingredient- and flavor-focused food — not on oil, chile, and grease,” Singh says. The chef enjoys introducing customers with previous perceptions of Indian cuisine to the truth behind his cooking. As he explains, “Vindaloo: Everybody thinks it’s a hot dish. It’s not a hot dish at all. It’s a beautiful, mild, full-flavored dish. Somehow people think, if you’re not man enough, you can’t eat vindaloo, it has to be fiery hot.”
So what is modern Indian fare? Think playful dishes like local scallop coconut curry with “Indian nachos,” an assortment of cucumber, chickpeas, yogurt, and mint chutney. Also gol gappa, spiced water tucked inside a crisp fried bread that explodes like a soup dumpling (eat it with care before all the liquid seeps out). For dessert, Singh offers a banana-shaped cardamom-honey-and-pistachio kulfi, an icy treat that was a form of relief for Singh during the hot summers of his youth. The bar also offers fresh mango lassis and an assortment of beer and wine to wash down the hearty, flavorful dishes.
As with the menu, Singh’s dining room offers an ode to his Indian heritage. The Hindi term babuji, used in Singh’s hometown of Chandigarh, describes a type of gregarious man with “real character” — and sets the tone for the restaurant’s atmosphere. Large-scale photographs of father figures watch over diners, while old recolored Bollywood films play on a wall above the bar. There’s also a stuffed peacock perched above the beer refrigerator, a bird that symbolizes much more than just eye candy. “I’m bringing what’s part of my life. Peacocks have been a big part of it,” Singh notes.