What do you like to drink?” chief mixologist Stephen Thomas asked on my first visit to Chelsea’s aRoqa. It’s a simple question that’s often difficult to answer. In response, I gave him a terrible project: a fruity rum drink, I’d said, or maybe something savory and boozy; never did I consider the twain could meet. Thomas nodded his head and went off to tinker, returning with a coupe glass filled with pink liquid. In just a few minutes, he’d devised a strawberry-forward sip that finished salty — my palate’s dream cocktail, actualized.
That same kind of flavor-flip happens throughout a meal at the new offering from chef Gaurav Anand, who’s also behind the much more traditional Indian restaurants Awadh and Moti Mahal Delux. aRoqa takes its name from the Punjabi engagement ceremony and bills itself as “contemporary Indian,” which means you can expect a festive atmosphere focused on Indian spices and preparations enhanced by unexpected ingredients. Chunks of avocado blend right into the kurkuri bhel. Habanero brings heat to the aioli served with a chicken kebab salted by parmesan crisps. Your goat kebab will be served like a taco and dressed like a hot dog.
Strolling past the restaurant, located on Ninth Avenue just off 23rd Street, you might mistake it for some kind of swank lounge. The walls are black and largely unadorned, the space’s gold accents the only sign of Indian-inspired décor. Stepping inside, you’ll likely find nearly every seat occupied (and probably by someone relatively young and well-heeled). Even so, the sense of exclusivity mellows quickly. The restaurant only opened at the beginning of June, making it likely you’ll see chef Anand strolling the floor, dropping off dishes playfully served on the beds of toy trucks — a whimsical reminder that chaat is street food, even if here it’s dolled up with pomegranate emulsion. Reservations are almost always necessary, but if you end up taking a stool at the bar, you won’t regret the time spent in close contact with Thomas’s wizardry.
The spirit guide previously worked as a sommelier and bartender at il Buco and il Buco Alimentari, often spending time upstate near Woodstock tending to his own farm (maple syrup from his sap house finds its way into the drinks here). The cocktail menu changes regularly, but on a recent visit the Oh My NOLA stood out: While watermelon may be ubiquitous in summer drinks, this one is elevated by the addition of the pickled variety, which kicks the Orange County Distillery Unaged Corn Whiskey and watermelon water into gear, providing just the right amount of acidity for a bright, fruity burst.
Thomas’s pyrotechnics are another reason to grab a seat at the bar: There’s a lot of smoke and fire involved in the cocktail presentation. If you opt for the intensely boozy Through My Sails — made with Owney’s NYC Rum, pineapple, lemongrass, Lustau Pedro Ximénez Sherry, almond, and Lemon Hart Overproof 151 — prepare for half a shelled-out lime to be filled with rum and set aflame.
But the over-the-top cocktails don’t distract from the food; owing to the savory components, they complement, often cutting through heat or adding a dash of salt. And the food, in turn, works in service of boozing: You’ll want to order a lot of plates, big and small, to share; even when you go for a big dish like the achari baingan, featuring pickled eggplants, green lentil and pearl millet porridge, and puffed lotus seeds, it’s more satisfying when you enjoy only about a quarter of the dish and leave room for a kulcha (a flatbread) stuffed with paneer before moving on to dessert. For that course, go with the not-too-sweet mango sorbet plopped into a cloud of not-too-heavy coconut milk rice pudding. Here, such pairings are built to last.