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Restaurants & Bars 16

Junoon and The Dutch - a tale of two rice puddings...and chicken, duck, pie, cake, cornbread, naan...

uhockey | Apr 24, 2012 03:42 PM

Full review with pictures in the blog, text as below:


With two days left in New York and still a number of spots left on my list of places to be visited Monday would start the same as any other; with a long run, breakfast, and plenty of walking intertwined with shopping, galleries, and (of course) food. Having left the day open for exploration aside from 7:30pm reservations at Annisa I’d be lying if I said there was not a loose framework in play, but compared to my typically tight schedule this was my free day to wander without worrying about being ‘on time’ – an especially fitting plan when the spots on the list either do not take or do not require reservations.

With the weather once again sunny and getting an even earlier start than usual so I could walk across another of New York’s historic bridges I would find myself in Soho just as many of the galleries and stores were opening their doors and after picking up a few small things and noting others for the following day as I did not want to carry bags all afternoon I turned my attention back to dining and made my way to Andrew Carmellini’s “The Dutch” with one thing in mind – the fried chicken.

Having been largely unimpressed with my previous Carmellini experience at Locanda Verde but hearing from multiple sources that both the chicken and the desserts at The Dutch were worth the effort I arrived at the restaurant just as they opened the doors and as the first person to enter was greeted by a team of five as I stepped through the doors. Requesting a table for one I was offered a seat at the bar or in the dining room and opting for the dining room I was led through the surprisingly large space, past the well adorned bar, and seated at a wooden booth with a full view of both the brick, wood, and tile dining room as well as the sunny street outside.

Greeted shortly after seating by my server, a pleasant young lady named Courtney, my water was filled and a menu was provided before she returned to the front to assist with seating other guests, a large flood of patrons that would have the rear dining room more than 2/3 full before noon – many solos, some small groups, and everything from well-dressed businessmen with their laptops to small children to an older woman with a novel seated next to me who introduced herself as Evelyn as I fiddled with my phone.

Having now been seated for perhaps fifteen minutes before Courtney returned I received an unnecessary apology for the wait and after deferring a cocktail I placed my order – one that Evelyn said was a “great choice, but so much food,” evoking a smile from both me and my server. At this point amused by my neighbor and with nothing better to do I asked her if she was going to order the chicken as well and while the details are now sketchy in my mind the next thing I knew we had agreed to share the chicken and that in exchange she would pay for dessert – an arrangement that did not seem to bother Courtney in the least even if we were taking up two separate tables.

Told that the chicken would take “about 20 minutes” I sat and chatted with my new friend for a while – a widower, born and raised in Manhattan, who’d planned to come and have ‘a salad and a piece of pie – plus the wonderful corn bread,’ corn bread that would arrive as a whole loaf for each of us less than five minutes later and much to my delight proved to be nearly as good as billed, though not quite as sweet and moist as that at Red Rooster or Bouley, instead choosing to focus on the savory with a touch of jalapeno dotting the crumbly interior.

With more than half of my cornbread gone and slightly less than half my life’s story told Courtney would return with “Hot Fried Chicken, Honey Butter Biscuits” almost exactly twenty minutes later and while appetite has never been an issue for me, I have to admit I did not anticipate a half of a chicken, two biscuits, and slaw – overall I was glad to share not because I didn’t have room, but because all I really wanted to do was see if it lived up to the hype, something two pieces would easily accomplish.

Opting first to taste the slaw as it is generally not something I fancy while Evelyn stated she loved it my one bite was sufficient – crisp, creamy, a touch of sweet and a bit of acid…just as expected, but essentially just filler. Moving next to the chicken – okay, I’ll admit, it was pretty excellent; golden brown, crunchy coating giving way to juicy meat, and just a touch of salt and spice to make it memorable. It was as good as any Amish fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, though perhaps not quite as lovely as the version at Central Michel Richard…a side by side taste test would be necessary to decide. Rounding out the plate, and thankfully deemed “too much bread” by my friend, the honey butter biscuits needed no side-by-side at all. Dense, buttery, flaky, and sweet I can’t think of any that I’ve tasted that can compare. They were the best non-pastry bread I had on this trip to New York, Per Se and EMP included.

“Impressed” by my appetite as she requested the thigh, half of her cornbread, and part of the slaw to be boxed up it was now time for dessert, an easy choice for Evelyn who selected the signature apple pie but a more disappointing one for myself as I’d had my eye set on some of Chef Kierin Baldwin’s more elaborate desserts apparently only available during dinner. With apologies from Courtney again offered but unnecessary I spent a few moments debating the three options but eventually succumbed to Evelyn’s suggestion that I too should select the Dutch Apple Pie – a choice I paired with multiple refills of a nutty and earthy brew from Stumptown Roasters.

At this point (sort of…but not really…as you will see) over my disappointment about the desserts and enjoying the coffee and conversation it would not be long before our plates would arrive and while I certainly do not claim to be a pie maven and fully admit that 99 times out of 100 I will order cake, pudding, ice cream, or otherwise instead this Dutch Apple Pie was pretty damned good. Beginning first with the apples – cooked but still snappy, sweet but balanced by the sour cream, warm and loaded with cinnamon – they were quite good, but where this dish really shined was the crust; a crisp, buttery, and flaky shell beyond reproach topped off with cinnamon crumble and paired with creamy buttered walnut ice cream and candied walnuts…it was a dish that made me think that just maybe I should consider pie more often…maybe.

Offering the other half of my cornbread to Evelyn to take home and receiving another cup of coffee as I enjoyed the pie a glance at the clock would show that we had only actually been seated for just over an hour and with the restaurant now nearly full our server stopped by to ask if we’d like anything else and after my new friend saying she couldn’t possibly eat another bite and me joking that I’d like to try those evening desserts we were brought the check – chicken and coffee for myself, pie and pie for Evelyn – a veritable bargain in terms of both price and capacity that I was not about to overlook and on settling the tab we bid each other and our server farewell with Courtney thanking us both for coming in and suggesting we come back any time for dinner or dessert…

Exiting The Dutch and making my way up Broadway for some more shopping around Union Square with a smile on my face it would not be long before it occurred to me that what I’d just eaten was a snack at best and an appetizer at worst – certainly not enough to constitute a full meal – and after picking up a particularly excellent Duchamp Tie at Nordstrom Rack I consulted my list and my watch to decide “what else” – perhaps one of the many spots in Eataly? Or maybe give the Donut Plant a second chance at its new outlet? Of course LA Burdick was closer and I did enjoy the one in Boston…or, hey, why not take my friend Roz’s advice and check out Junoon! (…and there is your answer to “what was he thinking,” just in case you were wondering later.)

Considered by many to be the best Indian restaurant in New York City and a winner of 2 Stars from The Times and 1 Star from Michelin, I had honestly not heard much about Junoon until my friend mentioned a great meal there, thus putting it on my “backup” list. Admittedly still a novice when it comes to Indian food but wanting to experience more of the cuisine and having sought out experiences at DC’s Rasika and Vancouver’s Vij’s with good results, what interested me the most about Junoon was it’s under-the-radar status despite a celebrity chef in Vikas Khanna, a seemingly prime location, and a lunch menu that read almost as impressively as that at dinner (something that cannot be said for Tulsi – the other contender for best upscale Indian Cuisine in the city.)

With the decision rather spur of the moment and without reservations it was just prior to 2pm when I walked through the doors of 27 West 24th Street and with the area undergoing a significant amount of construction I can imagine one could have easily overlooked the restaurant despite the large, elegant exterior. Greeted by a young woman at the hostess podium I was asked if I had a reservation and replying in the negative my coat and bags were taken before I was led through the decidedly ornate interior to a table in an a room that, aside from a couple of servers dressed in traditional outfit, was entirely empty.

Having been to a number of restaurants, both good and not so good, but never the only guest in the entire place I at first wondered if I’d shown up ‘between’ services, but moments later as a strange brand of Indian pop music played overhead Mohammed, my captain, approached with the full lunch menu including the prix fixe, tasting, and a la carte plus a list of wines and cocktails. With white tablecloths, quality flatware, and comfortable seating in such a well ordained environment I couldn’t help but wonder why the place was so empty, but undeterred I browsed the options and when Mohammed and another young man returned I opted for the three course tasting menu (not to be confused with the cheaper prix fixe with more limited options.)

With two other couples thankfully arriving as I sipped my water and continued to look over the unique menu featuring a diverse cooking repertoire from Tandoor and Tawa to Handi and Pathar Mohammad returned and talking professionally but pleasantly he asked if it was my first visit and then proceeded to explain to me the restaurant’s concept, sourcing, and principles – a nice touch I generally don’t anticipate at Indian restaurants (even Rasika and Vij’s) and he also suggested I go check out the “spice room” while I waited – a large space in the basement visible behind a glass window where no less than 100 spice were visible in glass jars as a young sous-chef worked off to the side with a scale, knife, mortar, and pestle.

Returning to my table an taking a seat it would not be long before my first course would arrive and although I’m sure the kitchen was less than pleased to have to prepare a small portion of five different appetizers, the supplement for the “Gold Plate” seemed well worth it instead of focusing on just one single appetizer in larger quantity. Delivered as a single plate (incidentally not gold) with the five items arranged in a cross-pattern I’ll start off by admitting that due to my limited knowledge of Indian cuisine and spices it is difficult for me to assess authenticity or quality compared to what is ‘the norm,’ but from start to finish each of the selections was well balanced, well textured, warm, and loaded with complex flavors.

Amongst the tasting, the first bite as suggested by my server was the Pakora, a fritter of sorts willed with portabellas, shitakes, and earthy aromatic spices within topped with a sauce made of coconut, mint, cilantro, yogurt, and ajwain – not spicy in the least this was a nice way to open and also led nicely into the second bite, Lahsooni Gobi with crispy (perhaps raw?) cauliflower seasoned with chili, sweet garlic tomato chutney, and micro cilantro…to my palate it almost tasted Italian, but with a touch of heat and substantially more aromatic on the palate.

With the vegetable options gone the following trio of bites would increase the heat and degree of complexity beginning with Piri Piri Shrimp in Goan Chili Sauce with ginger, garlic, avocado, and jicama, a good bite but perhaps “too much” for the mild shrimp which was there mostly in texture and a touch of sweet. Faring better, the Duck Gushtaba, a meatball with spicy green chilies, a touch of mint, and aromatic almond saffron sauce was outstanding as the chili/saffron combination was beautiful on the palate in enhancing the supple duck. Finally, rounding out the platter, the Patthar Ka Gosht was described as the chef’s favorite dish featuring house ground garam masala, tandori roasted onion and pineapple chutney, and nutmeg weaving beneath a sausage made by using lamb that had been ground five times over into a creamy pate…it was truly remarkable, though admittedly a bit hot for my mild Midwestern tongue.

Conversing with my servers after my appetizer plate was cleared I was glad that the platter had contained only essentially ten bites total when I saw my main course emerge from the kitchen being carried with two hands on a large service tray by one of the back waiters – thankfully much of it was for show – and sauce. Delivered tableside along with tender pulao rice and a basket of Naan with a portion doled out onto my (ironically) gold-rimmed plate, Duck with Tellicherry Peppercorn, curry leaves, tamarind pulp, and coconut milk would once again show off the restaurant’s quality of sourcing and preparation as the Long Island duck breast was roasted to a perfect medium with crisp skin and its characteristic flavor in delicate balance with the smoky, sweet, and slightly tart sauce. Generally not one to eat rice a few bites proved the grains to be well cooked and slightly pan crisped with notes of saffron and generally one to love bread I devoured the pillowy Naan but deferred a second basket in a rare showing of restraint.

Deferring coffee largely because I’d had quite enough at breakfast, dessert would come next and as expected, it was superb. Titled simply Coconut Rice Pudding and featuring a thick dollop of basmati rice cooked down with coconut milk and shredded coconut plus sugar I’d not be lying if I said I’d have been happy with a whole bowl of this, but gilding the proverbial lily the team at Junoon upped the ante by topping the pudding with a quenelle of creamy ginger ice cream and a scoop of candied almonds while bruleed bananas, dates, and rum glaze completed the plate. Intensely sweet but otherwise a lovely balance of textures I’d put this quite high on the ‘best rice pudding’ list.

Quite sated at this point Mohammed would return and ask if there was anything else I would like and on declining I was presented the bill as well as a pair of mignardises – a nicely textured White Chocolate Macaron and a butter caramel flecked with sesame seeds, a nice touch I’d not expected, yet fitting Junoon’s fine dining concept – a also born out in the design of the room, the service, and the sourcing/quality of the food. Once again admitting that I cannot properly judge Indian food as authentic due to limited experience, I do feel that I can judge fine dining and in that regard I’d say Junoon stacks up very favorably to the rest of New York’s Michelin Stars – Indian or otherwise.

With the paired lunch carving out little more than three hours of my day the afternoon was still young and the weather still lovely on emerging from Junoon and as good luck would have it I received a text from one of my friends stating he would be in town for work during the afternoon and wondered if I’d like to get together for drinks or a quick bite later on. Having already noted my plans for Annisa with four others slated for 7:30 I replied that as long as I’d make it to dinner on time that sounded great – we’d meet at the High Line around 5:00 and go from there…and where we would go? His suggestion – “The Dutch” – based largely on the whisky list and oyster sliders.

Amused by the suggestion and knowing its implications I agreed (his other suggestion was Minetta Tavern, where I was heading the following day anyhow) and arriving at 5:45 we entered to find the restaurant much different than prior – dark, candle lit, and quite loud as the bar area was packed. Greeted by different hosts/hostesses we were asked if we would prefer stand at the bar or have a table and selecting the later we were led to a table three down from where I’d eaten lunch and when our server, Titi, arrived I was glad to see that my experience at lunch was not an anomaly as she too was personable, pleasant, and professional.

Not a whisky drinker and with plans for dinner that may or may not include a drink I explained to my friend that I’d not be imbibing and after a quick browse of the menu he selected two varieties of bourbon as well as steamed clams and a trio of the oyster sandwiches. For myself, much to the amusement of both my friend and my server, I asked for coffee – and a duo of desserts (I also eventually explained the story of lunch to Titi who went so far as to tell Chef Baldwin, thus prompting a short tableside visit and copious thanks.)

With my friend eating bivalves and myself drinking coffee as we caught up on the last ~8 months it would not be long before the two desserts would arrive and beginning first with the warm option my dessert at Junoon quickly fell down a spot on the list as “Forbidden Rice Pudding” climbed to a spot just behind the rice pudding at Chez L’Ami Jean for best all time. Featuring black rice and its expected savory notes cooked to texture just short of creamy at its base and topped in rum-tinged syrup before being finished with shredded coconut and chopped pineapple, mango, and passion fruit plus crushed macadamia nuts there really wasn’t a single bite of this dish that tasted the same as the last and adding in the coconut sorbet to smooth the substantially sweet fruits was a beautiful touch. Even as someone who generally does not order fruit based desserts I found myself raving and not-so-secretly sort of glad when my friend deferred an offered taste.

Moving on to the second dessert, and perhaps the restaurant’s most well known, the “Devil’s Food Cake” would sit waiting while I finished the warm rice pudding and with my friend quite willing to give this one a taste or three we were both impressed, though for myself certainly less so than with the rice pudding. Featuring a dark, dense chocolate cake topped with black pepper icing, fudge sauce, and layers of chocolate mousse and ganache between the three cake layers the cake itself would prove a perfect match for the coffee while the light peppery hint was just detectable on the lips. Served alongside and atop a pile of chocolate crumbles - white Russian ice cream…delicious, boozy, and creamy as the namesake drink…the dude would definitely abide and having said what I did earlier about considering pie more often, sure, provided there is no cake or rice pudding.

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