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The fried chicken in pav from Rowdy Rooster is a thing of beauty

It’s been years since I last went to New York.

And while some of my favourite restaurants continue to shine – Eleven Madison Park has retained its third Michelin star despite throwing meat off menu, Le Bernadin is still the best fish restaurant in the world — some of the top places that I remember have been downgraded.


I doubt if either Jean Georges or Daniel will ever win their three stars again but I guess it doesn’t matter that much to them because their chef-owners have turned themselves into global brands.


   The city still looks to the New York Times to judge restaurants. Michelin matters to chefs and visitors but not so much to New Yorkers. For instance, Per Se, which was savaged by The Times has held on to its three Michelin stars but Peter Luger, the celebrated steakhouse which was similarly demolished by the Times, has lost it Michelin star.


   In terms of cuisine, my perspective (admittedly that of a barely knowledgeable outsider) is that New York now has little time for junk Japanese; it has many real Japanese restaurants that could easily compete with top places in Tokyo. American-Italian has made a comeback with the success of the Carbone group whose restaurants win no respect from Italy’s great chefs or from Michelin but are huge successes with a star-studded clientele and the approval of the New York Times.


   Korean cuisine is now where Japanese was around a decade ago in New York city; a really big deal and a cuisine that is not only taken very seriously by critics but is also commercially successful.


   The big news for us is that while Indian food has still to hit the big time, it has reached where Korean cuisine was a decade ago: on the verge of take-off. In New York, this is largely due to a single restaurant group, Unapologetic Foods run by Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya. The group has three restaurants on the New York Times list of the city’s top restaurants (more than any other restaurant group across cuisines) and two of its restaurants —Dhamaka and Semma — have three stars from The New York Times, a really big deal in the city.


   America is finally beginning to take Indian food seriously. Chintan Pandya, the chef-partner at Unapologetic Foods was rated the best chef in New York (across cuisines) by the James Beard Foundation and Semma is the only Indian restaurant in New York city with a Michelin star.


   I’ve only been to dinner at one of the Unapologetic restaurants (Semma) but what struck me was that while the restaurant is nearly impossible to get into (you have to book well in advance) the clientele includes Americans and Indians. Both groups enjoy the cuisine which makes no compromises and is stunningly authentic.


   I met Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya when they were on their India tour last month. When I landed in New York for three hectic days, I asked them if they could help with bookings. I wanted to eat at Dhamaka but Chintan suggested I go to Semma instead. (I’ve written about it in Rude Food this weekend.)


   They were kind enough to take me to restaurants I would never have got into myself because this was a sudden work trip and I had made no bookings at all.


   Roni took me to Le Rock, my favourite kind of restaurant (French brassiere cooking). Le Rock is the brainchild of two chefs (Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson) who opened the iconic Balthazar for Keith McNallly before going off to start their own group.


   Like Frenchette, the first restaurant the duo opened, the format of their places is deceptive. Le Rock is casual, relaxed and very New York. But the bistro/brasserie format actually serves as a cover for very serious French food. The leek vinaigrette, wrapped in leaves and opened on the table is a dish of genius. The snails, served in little cups with a butter flavoured with parsley, garlic and pancetta, are a fresh take on a Burgundy classic. The steak tartare is made from bison meat, not beef, and has a unique character of its own. The lentils classically served with a confit duck leg are replaced by farro (a kind of grain derived from wheat).


   "I was completely blown away, not just by the fried chicken or the spice mix but by the pav which they have specially baked for them and is far better from the rubbish bread we normally use for vada-pav at most places here."

   It is very precise cooking which would do any great French kitchen proud. Le Rock has three stars from the Times and will get one from Michelin this year, I reckon. (It is new so it could not be rated last year.)


   One reason why Korean food is so popular in New York is because it has range. For instance, Cote, a super-successful steakhouse with operations in New York and Miami (three stars from the Times in New York, Michelin stars in both cities) can be enjoyed by anyone who likes steak even if they don’t like kimchi or Gochujang.


   I went with Chintan who knows the chef but we kept a low profile and ordered simply till the chef (who was out of town) was informed that Chintan was in the restaurant. After that the experience completely changed. They sent out some caviar, told us that the chef had cancelled our order and that we would eat omakase. They brought us hunks of the best beef on the planet: US Prime, Miyazaki, Kobe, A5 Wagyu and God knows what else and cooked it in front of us.


   I wondered how much this was going to cost but no, they wouldn’t take any money because of the respect the chef has for Chintan. It was great food, as you would imagine. But it also helped me realise how much regard chefs at New York’s top restaurants have for Chintan.


   We went for lunch to Rezdora (also three stars from the Times and one from Michelin), a cosy Italian restaurant where the chef Stefano Secchi does his own take on the cuisine of Emilia Romagna. The most famous chef in that region is, of course, Massimo Bottura and Stefano had worked at Osteria Francescana and risen high in the kitchen. But his background is interesting: he is Italian-American and grew up in Dallas, Texas. His own father is from Sardinia so his food is not exactly classic Emilia Romagna style.


   Stefano is still pals with Massimo and knew that the chef was in Delhi a couple of weeks ago and messaged him while we were there. His food does Osteria Francescana proud: in the Massimo tradition but different.


   I stayed, as I have for years, at the Taj-run Pierre hotel. The Pierre is one of New York’s grand hotels and has a wonderful restaurant location opening on to Fifth Avenue so you don’t have to go through the hotel to get there.


   When I first went, they ran Café Pierre in that location and it was pretty dismal. Then they gave the space over to a branch of London’s fashionable Le Caprice which flopped. They decided that perhaps this was because New York is inhospitable to restaurants from outside. (True but this incarnation of Le Caprice was not very good.) So they went for a great New York name: the Maccionnes of Le Cirque who opened a restaurant called Sirio. This turned out to be the worst of the lot.


   Now, the hotel is finally running the restaurant itself and the food (overseen by the hotel’s chef Ashfer Biju) is delightful. I had lunch there with Karambir Kang who runs the Taj’s American operations and Ashfer outdid himself with a meal that was witty (Coronation chicken reimaged as a salad) and superbly cooked (Beef Bourguignon with short rib in place of the pieces of meat that it is usually made with) Sadly, Ashfer is moving on. But I hope the restaurant will flourish.


   And finally, the single best thing I ate in New York: a chicken sandwich.


   Roni and Chintan have worked to develop an Indian fried chicken for a proposed fast-casual chain of restaurants. They only have two shops at the moment and I went to one to eat a sandwich made with their fried chicken.


   I was completely blown away, not just by the fried chicken or the spice mix (the restaurant has five blends made from different chillis — from mild to nuclear) but by the pav which they have specially baked for them and is far better from the rubbish bread we normally use for vada-pav at most places here.


   I imagine that Unapologetic Foods will open more fried chicken places (the brand is Rowdy Rooster) and roll it out internationally. I reckon this could be their Shake Shack.


   So, if you do go to New York and have difficulty booking tables at any of the restaurants I have written about, don't worry. Just go to Rowdy Rooster and eat the fried chicken in Pav.


   It is a thing of beauty.




  • jenni kim 17 May 2023

    Your writing is really great. wyo meaning I’m so glad I read it. It kept me hooked the whole way through.

Posted On: 15 May 2023 06:40 PM
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