February 14, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable
Fire and Rice

        Folks who live below the Maginot Line (for some, it’s 14th Street, for others 23rd) like to think they have everything just a speed-walk away. Now there’s a new treat to nurture the delusion. Baluchis, the pungent taste of India with its voluptuous heat and exotic perfumes, smack dab on Spring Street’s restaurant row. It’s so easy to fall in love with the tapestry of cumin and cardamom and turmeric, the trailing scents of anise, coconut, and sweet, tangy tamarind, the wonderful flatbreads from the griddle and tandoori oven, and the daring sadism of so much chili dynamite. As if 6th street weren’t already superfluous.

        Stroll by, fall in, share fiery lamb vindaloo and saffron rice pullau with peas, then marvel at the modest tab. That’s good enough. But look around the place and you’ll see that owner Rakesh Aggarwal has a grander vision for SoHo. Artists must have art, he reasons. But why the name – why Baluchi’s? He like the sound, “sort of Italian” and reminiscent of Baluchistan, a Persian province from which this food does not come.

        Though Rakesh began his New York life as a waiter at “21” and then at the Oak Room, he’s now an importer with easy access to his native treasures: the glorious camel benches in the window, the chairs with silver rams’ heads, the fabulous copper tableware, the old shutters that have been framed under glass to make tables. An exquisite carved and painted medallion taken from an old mansion is set for our bacchanal, six of us gathered on patchwork chairs with the glitter of scattered sequins and silver threads.

        Two can certainly orchestrate a sense-tingling feast here, but with five or six, full-throttle decadence seems compulsory. We’re sharing aloo papri, a vibrant toss of pastry crisps, chickpeas, potatoes, and onion bound with yogurt-tamarind-cilnatro sauce. Street food, in India, heaven here. From the “to begin” column: freshly fried vegetable fritters (bhaja) and a tandoori-vegetable platter, its dense squares of cottage cheese (paneer) less than a hit. But our first bread, layered whole-wheat paratha, has already disappeared, and with it the last shred of discipline. Then comes the whole leg of lamb in its copper baking dish, a caramelized launch on a nest of slivered onions, pepper, and tomatoes. Not pink, as we like it, but juicy and full of flavor. Now all moral fiber unravels, just in time for chicken (tikka masala) in a powerful and buttery tomato bath, potatoes in curry (aloo dum), and a fragrant melt of eggplant (because for some of us, a day without eggplant is like a day without Letterman).

        We could say stop. But miss this vegetable biryani with raisins and slivers of almond? This trio of breads – onion kulcha, garlic nan, and spicy-potato stuffed paratha? And how to resist the amazing daal, with lentils intact in a butter-rich puree? My pals cut a swath through the mango chutney. They dab the cooling yogurt raita, with its chunks of pineapple and cucumber, everywhere but on their fevered brows. Oh. Joy – they’ve left the small pertri dish of pickles untouched. Essence of cedar closet, wicked little morsels about the detonate. I love it.

        The rotund A.J., for Arjun Gulubrai, sergeant in charge, quickly sizes up your internal carburetor – for us, he brings everything quite torrid. “I could see from how you ate the pickle,” he says. But the heat can be toned down. The leg of lamb can even be cooked medium if you call ahead.

        With a couple of desserts, tax, and tip, we’ve indulged to near-paralysis for less than $25 each, exiting with a huge sack of leftovers we’ll leave beside a cardboard sleep station. But the liquor license is due any minute, and the tab will elevate with calls for Indian beer, fruity wine, and other fire extinguishers.

        If you worry that too many dishes may taste too much alike, ask for guidance. Or choose peppery-hot potato cakes (aloo tikiyas), tender chicken tikka (tandoori is too dry for me), and a spicy lamb curry. Or focus on vegetables. Either way, with saffron biryani and a bread, you’ve got dinner. The desserts Indians crave mystify Western taste. But the mango kulfi is surprisingly good for faux ice cream. Already, one of us is addicted to rasmalai, cheese balls in milk sauce with rosewater. And gulab jamun (those cheese balls again), deep-fried and macerated in sugar-rosewater syrup, is so sweet, one bite will do.

        Once again I’m reminded of the metaphysical chasm between the incurable gourmand and the mere human being. The Road Food Warrior has loved our night at Baluchis. He can’t wait to go back in a week or two. I wake up the next morning, intoxicated by the memory of cumin and curry, exhilarated to discover that the doors to Baluchis swing open at noon.

Baluchis, 193 Spring Street (226-2828). Open noon to midnight daily. A.E., M.C., V.

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene

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