July 28, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Awadh: Eating with the Nawabs

 Devouring okra crisps -- dragging them through a tamarind dip -- on the balcony at Awadh.
Devouring okra crisps -- dragging them through a tamarind dip -- on the balcony at Awadh.

          Everything about Awadh is surprising. It’s a duplex glass-fronted jewel on a tacky stretch of Broadway, north of 96th Street. Encouraged by two stars at his Moti Mahal Delux on the Upper East Side, chef-restaurateur Gaurav Anand has taken on the slow and sophisticated Awadhi cooking of Lucknow, “the city of the Nawabs” in Utter Pradesh. I’ve been twice and most everything I’ve tasted is special, different and very good.

The smart glass front of a handsomely designed duplex adds class to a tacky stretch of Broadway.

          Awadh is several castes above the typical, inexpensive neighborhood Indian café in ambition. Gorgeous service platters. Cushy leather chairs in the teeny lounge. A wine program designed by consulting sommelier John Slover (Charlie Bird, Daniel, Cru). Alas, the service is sweet, but it can be slow, disorganized -- and you’ll most likely have to climb the stairs since Anand or his brother and the manager seem distracted, leaving the seating to the very young crew.

My friends are taken with the looks and style of our waiter. He’s Nepalese, he responds,when we ask.

          Not that the balcony isn’t attractive -- with its textured stone wall above tufted banquettes, polished chrome and eight feet of glass bubbles in a cascading chandelier dripping toward the lounge below. But I think the $14 cocktail -- even though creative -- is very aggressive for Broadway and 97th Street.

Marvelous soft minced lamb patties sit on what look like small tortillas, could be whole wheat paratha.

          I’m drinking the Nawab -- tequila, fresh tamarind pulp, black salt.  Order two drinks and you’ve paid for the gorgeous glass service plates or the speckled platter under the intriguing galouti kebabs -- soft and mysterious minced lamb patties under a ring of red onion. They sit on what look like tiny tortillas and are a must.

          My ethnic adventurer pals are excited. They’ve been online checking out the menu. “I’ve never eaten with the Nawabs before,” says Peter. Indian menus can be baffling. My own multiple excursions to India havn’t cleared up the mystery for me, since your hosts are always feeding you there, traditional or fusion, no explanation. I’ve been to India five times -- once for two months -- and I sometimes feel like just closing my eyes and stabbing the menu with a fork. (Suvir Saran’s Devi with its tasting menu was an exception, and I feel competent at Tulsi where I know the food of Hemant Mathur.)

Leg of lamb, tender and sauced with a cupboard of fragrant spices, is more than we can eat.

          Here you start with the clearly marked “Awadh Specialties.” “Dum pukht” cooked could be a clue. We had the tender leg of lamb, “Lagan Ki Raan” $20, immersed in a fragrant sauce with a few sticks of green apple and ginger on top. 

The house sends papadum crisps with garlicky cilantro and tamarind sauces, and onion relish.

          But we had already eaten every morsel of the superior papadum (while waiting forever for food) and devoured the crispy okra when it did finally arrive. Dipping it in tamarind sauce. Exclaiming. Saluting the clever transformation of the lowly okra. Comparing it to okra triumphant at The Cecil.

Paneer dumplings are filled with cashews in cream sauce and float in a tomato-fenugreek sea.

          Then, exploring and approving the Kofta Dilnaaz, which Belle was annoyed had not been translated “paneer” but rather, “cottage cheese dumplings.” “Don’t you think that’s overly condescending?” she asks. They are small triangular hills filled with chopped cashews in a creamy sauce, emerging from a thick tomato-fenugeek soup.

          On my first visit, I chose the bread, garlic-glazed nanan.  It was fine. The second evening someone else asked for Ultra Tawa paratha -- whole-wheat layered bread. I think it may be the best Indian bread I’ve ever eaten, naked or loaded with yogurt raita.

No need for tandoori chicken here with so many Awadhi options, but it is admirably moist.

          I find the five-spice grilled skewer of minced chicken shikampuri disappointingly dry. Am I the only one?  Peter apologizes for insisting on the tandoori chicken -- “It’s just the usual bright red tandoori chicken,” he observes. And it is, but it’s unusually moist.

Grilled mustard-marinated lamb chops are a delicious $14 buy ,even if they can’t do them “rare.”

          The samosas are just samosas too. But grilled mustard-marinated lamb chops ($14) are full of unexpected flavors, even though not “rare” as we requested.  We had persuaded our perky and agreeable server to ask the kitchen for four rather than three. “Charge us for the extra,” we suggest. (First time, there is no charge; second time, a $5 charge. Proof the crew may be settling down.)

By the time biryani arrives with lamb on the bone, I’ve already eaten too much.

          I would have urged my pals to try the Awadh lamb biryani too but they hesitate to order too much. Arriving last, it was indeed too much to eat on my first visit. My friends sat dazed, admiring it, charmingly served in a pretty clay pot, covered with a bread lid. I could only taste: a bite of lamb on the bone buried in meticulously cooked, long-grain basmati rice. I felt less wasteful when one of my guests agreed to take it home for her guy.

Tawa scallops are rarish as we wished and served with green apple and celery.

          That first evening we had already shared coconut shrimp curry and the pan-seared scallops topped with celery and green apple. No wonder we’d reached the full-up point. Now, a month later, we’ve reached that point again. Was it all those seconds on cocktails? The papadum frenzy? The crispy okra attack? The flaky paratha we couldn’t stop eating? Waiting too long for the food?

Perhaps I’d like the coconut shrimp curry better if the shrimp were larger and less cooked.

          Kulfi can be a grainy substitute for ice cream or it can be surprisingly smooth kulfi like the one Awadh served in a tumbler ($8). But why so little? The saffron-infused bread pudding looked and tasted a bit like sweetened oatmeal to me, but Belle, just back from India, found the flavor evocative. Then she ordered the masala chai (reportedly from a special tea program designed by a second generation tea producer) and swooned over it, giving everyone a sip.

For some, the familiar spices of India will be enough to recommend this sticky bread pudding.

          If you were to order Indian food the way you order French, a starter, an entrée, a dessert, Awadh would be good for penny-pinching. Special starters are only $8 to $12; vegetarian dishes $6 to $8. Awadh specialties start at $13 and go to $21 for a masala-wrapped whole fish, “Dum Pukht.”  But if you eat Indian the way we do, you want to try everything. It’s the small-plate-two-cocktail economy that can inflate the cost of eating out, $77 per person for us on ethnic adventurers night.

          Many Indian restaurants have a bargain deal for lunch. Here it’s $12. Brunch is designed to lure the locals too. But rather than the typical unlimited booze, Gaurav Anand launched his $16 brunch this past weekend -- a three-course menu with two appetizers, two entrées, a dal of the day and yogurt served with rice and naan, plus dessert -- with refills of any food item. A high for gourmands.

2588 Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets. 646 861 3604. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 pm. Dinner 5 to 11 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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