Soho Tiffin Junction’s chicken tenders are outstanding, the bird marinated in curry and fried to a brown crisp. They arrive as a bulky trio, coated in a masala chickpea flour that makes them taste like a cross between boneless wings and ayam goreng, the turmeric-tinged fried chicken popular throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. Dip them in spicy ketchup or a puréed chutney made of mango, mustard seed, and curry leaf.
They’re the work of Wylie Dufresne, the celebrity chef and erstwhile molecular gastronomist who closed his pioneering restaurant wd~50 in 2014 and its sibling, Alder, in 2015. Last fall, Dufresne, who will soon open a restaurant in the financial district’s AKA Wall Street hotel, took a consulting job to overhaul this fast-casual canteen and gin up a new dinner menu, which is where you’ll find those $8 tenders. You can thank Dufresne for nailing the garbanzo flour crust. “Wylie helped us place our cuisine in a local context,” founding partner and former Lehman Brothers and Citibank exec Jawahar Chirimar tells the Voice.
By day, the quick-service Indian restaurant peddles tiffin bowls (tiffin in this instance meaning a light meal comprising several elements) assembly-line-style. Dufresne added a corn-studded, curried avocado mash, a catchy contribution that might entice the “guac is extra” crowd and pairs well with shredded tamarind-braised beef, a lunch mainstay. Soho Tiffin Junction isn’t shy about who it’s trying to emulate, peppering Instagram with the hashtag #IndianChipotle.
For the past two years it’s served only lunch, which has proved popular with NYU students and, according to social media, actress Phylicia Rashad. Dinner launched in early March; Chirimar, Dufresne, and head chef Ramkumar Ramakrishnan’s menu of nine “Indian small plates” was whittled down from more than forty test recipes. Dufresne is one of several fine-dining chefs dipping a toe into the convenience market, though Soho Tiffin Junction aims a bit higher than most counter service spots. “It’s been exciting to see how we can take the fine-dining approach, streamline it, and imagine it being made on a larger scale,” Dufresne tells the Voice.
At night, for instance, the kitchen swaps out takeout containers for white ceramic, table service, and complimentary naan. Dishes top out at $12, which makes sense: Despite candlelit tables and shades pulled down to cover the overhead lunch menu, it still feels like a quick-service restaurant. That’s not a bad thing. While my first visit was dull — simply because I was the only diner for the entirety of my meal — on a subsequent trip, the surroundings felt almost kitschy once the room was half-filled.
Dufresne, one of the culinary world’s most inspired tinkerers, was tasked with tweaking regional Indian recipes to appeal to a broader range of palates. That seems to translate to: more cheese. So dosa, sourdough crêpes made from lentils and rice, ooze with melted gruyère. They’re not dramatically huge the way the best versions of this South Indian specialty are, but they’re tasty dunked into split-pea and chayote chutneys. Gruyère also adds extra creaminess to chicken tikka masala, which comes topped with shaved brussels sprouts and pickled onions. “I love that they use thigh meat,” offers Dufresne.
Spicy tomato curry from South India’s Chettinad region pop up in both a cheesy dip and a shrimp entrée. The latter is served with star anise quinoa and a complex gravy inflected with cilantro and preserved lemon. “JC [Chirimar] was bringing in recipes and flavors from his childhood and putting them on the menu,” Dufresne says, adding, “the shrimp Chettinad has a spice mix that’s directly out of his experience, and I was able to provide guidance on the art of cooking seafood.” Dufresne’s plating adds a fresh garnish: shredded snow peas.
Malai kofta, North Indian cheese-and-vegetable dumplings, are here rendered decidedly meaty, a mix of pork and beef simmered in mushroom gravy that incorporates bone broth, tamarind, and smoked chiles. Vegetarians can console themselves with an excellent meatless burger served with kale chips. (Dufresne notoriously loves processed American cheese, but I’m glad he chose sharp cheddar here, to layer with tikka sauce and Rajasthani pickles.) Another vegetarian dish resembles saag paneer, with cubes of fresh cheese and spinach, but its buttermilk and coconut flavors pay homage to a Tamil dish called mor kuzhambu.
Wines are of the table variety, mostly under $48, and canned craft beers are $4 a pop. Dessert is soft-serve kulfi from former wd~50 pastry chef Sam Mason. The first machine Chirimar purchased is out of commission, but once a new one is installed later this month, you’ll be able to eat saffron and cardamom ice creams with almond brittle made of jaggrey, a molasses-colored unrefined sugar.
For diners who remember the days when Dufresne and Mason shared a kitchen, their paired stage at Soho Tiffin Junction feels like a bittersweet not-quite-reunion. Over the past decade as a chef, Dufresne has struggled to appeal to a mass audience. At a fast-casual restaurant near Washington Square Park, he may finally do just that.
Soho Tiffin Junction
42 East 8th Street