In many Indian restaurants around the city, chefs tend to be ghostly, anonymous figures who rarely poke their heads out of the kitchen door. But at his boisterous new Alphabet City establishment, Babu Ji, Jessi Singh, who comes to the East Village via Melbourne and Punjab, is a constant presence in his dining room, grinning, circulating among the tables, cheerfully suggesting dishes in his soft Aussie twang. As designed by Singh’s wife (and co-owner), Jennifer, the room exudes a sense of conviviality too. The walls are decorated with big photos of assorted babujis (“honored father” or respected elder in Hindi) sporting eccentric handlebar mustaches and vividly colored sequined coats. A stuffed peacock sits above the beer-and-wine cooler, and when I asked for a beer to go with my curry, the waiter instructed me in a cheerful voice to go to the cooler and choose it myself.
The one-page menu at Babu Ji has a similarly pleasing grab-bag quality to it. There are elevated versions of classic Indian street snacks to graze on (try the papadi chaat sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, and the crispy-shelled gol gappa filled with three chutneys), fat croquettes made with thick hung yogurt (“yoghurt kebab”), and balls of crushed potato flavored with curry leaf and mustard seed and set in pools of pineapple sauce scented with cumin and mint (the excellent batata vada). Singh prepares his succulent version of tandoori chicken off the bone (it’s served as an appetizer with mango salsa), and when we ordered the classic goat curry (the recipe comes from Singh’s home village in Punjab), the soft, bone-in chunks of goat were garnished with bits of greenery from the Union Square market and a handful of fresh blackberries.
Staunch Indian-food traditionalists may quibble with these flowery touches, but not Ms. Platt, who gobbled down her dinner at Babu Ji like a ravenous teenager. “You’d better give this place three stars,” she cried between bites of tandoori-charred rainbow trout (served whole, with a drizzling of ginger and honey) and the predictably lustrous butter chicken, which Singh and his cooks prepare with milk and fenugreek folded with fried shallots, tomatoes, and generous chunks of free-range bird from Murray’s. The Long Island scallops in my copper pot of slightly oversweet scallop coconut curry were as big and soft as marshmallows, and the spinach in the densely green, garlic-infused bowl of palak paneer, that old curry-house warhorse, tasted like it had been plucked that morning from a nearby rooftop garden and prepared in the home kitchen of some local Alphabet City nabob.
The kitchen has been under strain more or less since Babu Ji opened (“It’s as loud as an Indian train station here” is one of the things Singh likes to yell at his guests), and it shows in some of the dishes. The fatty Goan-style pork belly vindaloo could have had more bite to it, and the chunks of lamb in my watery lamb rogan josh were as hard as vulcanized rubber. You can cover up these occasional mishaps with baskets of buttery, crunchy-bottomed naan, however, and with the fluffy house basmati rice, which is flavored with cumin and lemon. Whatever you do, leave a little room for the desserts, of which there are only two. The wonderful, pistachio-flecked condensed-milk kulfi gets all the press, but the dish we couldn’t stop nattering about was the gulab jamun, which combines the softness of just-baked sponge cake with the focused, sinfully addictive qualities of a first-rate doughnut hole.
Vegetarians are supposed to be a sensitive, retiring bunch, but everything about Amanda Cohen’s brassy new reboot of her seminal veggie establishment, Dirt Candy, screams out for attention. There’s the glittery sequined signage on the Allen Street façade, which reminded one of my guests of something you might see above a popular souvenir store at the mouth of a well-traveled national park. There’s the Vegas-like color scheme, which includes chairs covered in white faux leather and a red banquette along the walls. There’s the great Cheesecake Factory-size menu, which lists each dish in a different big-letter font and contains all sorts of dizzying information on the back, including how many cases of broccoli are used weekly at the restaurant (16) and how many “consultants” were employed in launching it (nine).
Some veggie formulations feel more overworked than others, but after much public hand-wringing on Cohen’s part, the consultants seem to have more or less done their jobs. I didn’t mind the swampy green kale matzo-ball soup (spiked with okra and galangal), or the semi-spicy mapo eggplant, or even the brightly colored monkey bread, served, for extra effect, in a small flowerpot. I won’t be reordering the $28 “corn boil” (which requires you to eat a lot of slippery roughage wearing a plastic bib), but Cohen’s famous tomato cake with smoked feta is almost worth a special trip. The cocktail list is refreshingly unpretentious for a potentially pretentious vegetarian restaurant (and, at $13 for your Dark and Stormy, refreshingly priced), and with some exceptions so are the desserts, in particular the carrot pie, which is capped with a twirling meringue top and tastes a little like oranges if you eat it with your eyes shut.
175 Ave. B, at 11th St.; 212-951-1082; babujinyc.com
Open: Tuesday through Friday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner.
Prices: $4 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Batata vada, tandoori chicken, butter chicken and/or goat curry, basmati rice and naan basket, kulfi.
Note: At $50 per head, the chef’s-table option (“eat like a babu ji”) is one of the better tasting-menu deals in town.
Scratchpad: One hearty star for the cheerful vibe and another for Singh’s elegant home-style cooking.
86 Allen St., nr. Broome St.; 212-228-7732; dirtcandynyc.com
Open: Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
Prices: $2 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Kale matzo-ball soup and/or tomato cake (with a side of hush puppies), mapo eggplant, carrot meringue pie.
Note: Dirt Candy is a no-tipping establishment, and everyone (the customer, the cooks, the front-of-the-house staff) is the better for it.
Scratchpad: One robust star for the best of the neo-veggie comfort-food cooking.
*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.