Earlier this month I turned into a gigantic spiced garbanzo bean.
Please don't be alarmed. There is no threat to the public, as long as I don't roll into traffic.
Legumification started a few weeks back after a friend asked which of the downtown Indian joints cooked the best chickpeas. Shalimar, I replied, a little too quickly. And just what makes it the best? he asked. Well, uh . . . good question. I hadn't had this dish anywhere else for a while. Time to replay the field.
SHALIMAR, 532 Jones St. (June 30, July 20): Kabli channa ($4.95) was as I'd remembered, tender peas flavored with cumin, tamarind and medium chile heat. The gravy was smooth, thick and medium golden-brown, and there wasn't much of it. A small amount of spice-red oil pooled on top, which I don't mind, though others might.
PAKWAN, 501 O'Farrell St. (July 1): Chana masala ($4.50) was lighter in color and had more gravy, more chile heat and some whole spice -- nigella and flecks of red chile -- but less tamarind tang and overall a thinner flavor.
CHUTNEY, 511 Jones St. (July 4): Chana masala ($3.99) had the firmest peas in the 'hood, a quality some may prefer. (I happen to like them tender, to the point that some break up and enrich the gravy.) Chile heat was comparable to Pakwan's -- a surprise, since other dishes I've had here were mild -- and flavors were nicely balanced. Also in the sauce: chopped cilantro and a couple of green cardamom pods.
LITTLE DELI INDIAN CUISINE, 552 Jones St. (July 5, 22, 27): Chollay curry ($5.50) was a generous plate of tender chickpeas in plentiful ruddy gravy. The heat was robust, as ordered -- from fresh green as well as dried red chiles -- yet well integrated with the other flavors: onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander among them. There was a pleasing tanginess from tomato and yogurt. This was the heartiest version in the neighborhood. The most expensive, too, but the portion was large -- an 8-inch round plate (disposable foam plastic; this is the Tandoorloin, after all), bigger than the oval dishes at most of the other places. Chana lovers take note: There are four chickpea dishes on the menu. The others are chollay bhatura, with the fried bread made with yogurt; chollay saag, with chopped spinach; and chollay aloo, with potato.
A couple more notes on Little Deli, which hasn't been reported on recently: The owners are a friendly couple from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and they make some things the Punjabi restaurants do not, including rogan josh ($7.99-$9.99), the Kashmiri lamb dish in yogurt gravy, here also offered with chicken or shrimp; badami chicken ($8.99), in a ground-almond sauce; navratan korma ($7.99), vegetables braised in a sweet-spicy cream sauce; and other northern dishes. Meat is halal. As the name says, this place is little, with seating for maybe a dozen. It's a mom-and-pop shop; she takes the orders, he does most of the cooking. Most dishes are made to order, and it can take a long time to get your food. If you'd prefer not to wait around, order by phone (409-3354) and she'll tell you how long it will be.
NAAN 'N' CURRY, 478 O'Farrell St. (July 9): Chana masala ($3.99) had medium-high heat, lots of smooth golden gravy, little whole spice presence. Slices of tomato contributed some sourness. A small amount of chopped cilantro topped the dish.
LAHORE KARAHI, 612 O'Farrell St. (July 16): Chana masala ($3.99) had very tender peas, some broken up -- maybe the most tender version I had -- in a small amount of thick gravy. Chile heat was medium but well integrated with the other flavors; there was chopped ginger but otherwise little whole spice. Chopped cilantro on top.
DARBAR, 1412 Polk St. (July 17): This newcomer, open since June 14, serves a familiar Punjabi menu -- the owner is from Lahore. Lahori choley ($4.95) was unusually red with lots of liquid and maybe not as much garbanzo as the other places. Strong cumin flavor, chopped cilantro, sliced onion, tomato and green bell pepper. Mine came hot, as ordered, but it was a one-dimensional heat. The decor is a cut above the other places, and there is full table service. The owner made a modest attempt at upselling (``Samosa to start?'') but didn't push it.
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This is just a snapshot of some of the neighborhood Indian places, narrowly (OK, obsessively) focused on one dish. Apologies for ignoring the popular foods -- other curries, meats from the tandoor, biryani and breads, to name a few -- that these restaurants are better known for. (See Malik's informative post in the Shalimar thread below for a nice guide to the rest of the menus.)
I set out to find the best Indian chickpea dish in my part of town. In the end I decided not to rate or rank, but tried only to describe them. I came to appreciate the variety of approaches to this humble dish, and couldn't choose a single favorite. Little Deli's chollay was flavorful and complex, but some days I'd prefer a simpler, mellower plate like those at Shalimar or Lahore Karahi.
This is one thing I'm enjoying about the Indian restaurants springing up like mushrooms downtown. (Recent addition: Indian Aroma, 1653 Polk St., opened this month by the owners of Scenic India, 532 Valencia St. near 16th. Anyone been yet?) Despite similarities in the menus, especially among the Punjabi places, each is staking out a distinct style. The Indian-Pakistani Chowdown that's in the works sounds like a fine opportunity to check out the scene.