Even the late Anthony Bourdain — as dedicated to singing his hometown’s praises as he was to ferreting out great food no matter where it hid — could not offer much enthusiasm for New York City’s collection of Indian restaurants. “I cannot recommend any Indian restaurant in New York,” he told Vogue India last year. “I’ve been spoiled.” While the excuse feels somewhat lame, and Bourdain may have been forgetting some standout spots, it’s telling that his comment went more or less overlooked by New York’s legion of culinary defenders, largely because they tend to overlook the city’s Indian restaurants, too — and rarely give the cuisine the same respect that’s afforded to others.
That’s not to say New York City is actually devoid of great Indian food, but it is true that Indian chefs in New York have a difficult time breaking through to mainstream awareness. Adda, which just opened, but is still hiding in Long Island City next to a 7-Eleven and across the street from CUNY’s La Guardia Community College, may be one new restaurant that helps move the needle. The room is so bare-bones casual that it can feel like dinner at a friend’s house that comes with a bill at the end, and an all-day student special takeout lunch box costs just $6.43, but the cooking by chef Chintan Pandya is likely to open more than a few eyes to what “Indian” cooking can really be.
Pandya’s personal favorite dish on the Adda menu is his seasonal saag, a silky layering of baby spinach, baby kale, chili oil, butter, garlic, and mango. It is easily the best thing this writer has eaten all year, and it costs just $5. There is plenty more to like: Cauliflower achari soaked in Amul cheese is as addictive as blue-cheese-covered buffalo wings. Bhatti da Murgh offers succulent chicken under a sharp armor of herbal crust that delivers the spices’ flavor and texture in equal measure. Tandoori poussin is as buttery, tender, and flaky as fish. And when a friend, a biology professor who studied in India, tried the supple, spicy goat meat of the junglee maas, he was flummoxed: “I don’t know of a molecular process that can do that to protein other than the Fountain of Youth.”
“Chintan Pandya is truly his generation’s visionary chef,” says Vikas Khanna, perhaps the world’s most-famous Indian chef. “I have been very proud of his work and ethics. He revisits Indian cuisine and at the same time reinvents it with a soulful twist.” Hari Nayak, of Café Spice and Modern Indian Cooking fame, agrees: “A lot of chefs, including me, are trying to educate the mainstream that there’s more than what’s been popular since the ’60s. Chintan is leading the way. I’ve been in New York for 20 years and he’s a once-in-a-generation chef.”
Pandya himself, however, is surprisingly humble. His personal mantra — inspired by the Mahabharata’s Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture — translates to “Do your work. Don’t worry about the results.” Pandya got his start cooking at a hotel restaurant in his native Mumbai. Over the next five years, he took personal treks across India to consult its aunties — the Indian version of abuelas or nonnas — to gather the most specific, unapologetic, uncompromising, ghar-ka-khana (home style) recipes he could find: Kashmiri lotus root kofta, Malvani prawn curry, Rajasthani junglee maas, Awadhi biryani from Lucknow, murgh rezala from Calcutta, and on and on. He deep-dived into Parsi cuisine (Indian Persian food) and got hungry for more diversity: “I keep thinking, How can I grow? How can I grow?”
After his five-year treasure hunt across India, Pandya worked in Singapore, then a drive-by consultancy in Cleveland, and a no-go idea in Atlanta before becoming the executive chef at Junoon, New York’s only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. “There’s nothing bigger than Junoon for Indian. They’re the topmost,” Pandya explains, pointing out that he felt pressure to raise the rating to two stars. “I was trying my level best to take it to the next level, and I could not make a difference.”
Of course, you can ask the owners of acclaimed restaurants like Cosme and Le Coucou, neither of which holds a Michelin star, how important they really are for success and prestige in New York, but Pandya nevertheless left the restaurant after 11 months. His follow-up was Rahi, an upscale playground of daring riffs on Indian flavors like squid-ink upma with octopus and calamansi aïoli. Rahi was noticed by some of the city’s critics (Robert Sietsema called one dish “surprising and unforgettable,” while Pete Wells wrote that its food is “the most exciting” among a crop of relatively casual new Indian spots.)
If Jean-Georges Vongerichten isn’t confined to Alsatian fare, Pandya figures, why should he feel stuck in his Gujarati or Mumbai upbringing? “There is an expectation that Indian should adapt,” he says, “but you would never ask a French chef to make bouillabaisse with lamb instead.” He calls the education he got from those treks to aunties “hard-core Indian,” and when asked to point out the most hard-core dishes on Adda’s menu, Pandya instead circles three items: kale pakoda, masala fried chicken, and the chicken tikka burger. “These,” he says, “are the only dishes that aren’t hard-core.”
This is the goal of Adda: “I want to share Indian food with more people, not more Michelin inspectors.” Pandya will happily explain, in great detail, the history of any of Adda’s offerings — even the local favorite Thums Up cola, — but the end of his description is always the same. “It’s a very simple dish,” he’ll say. “Anybody who cooks it right will be able to achieve this — you’re just tasting it the way it is supposed to be.”