I'd eaten at Vatan (near 29th and 3rd) several times after it first opened, generally about twice a year for five years or so. At the time it was the only game in town for Gujerati food and, although the food was slightly uneven, it was generally excellent. It was the only place where you could get things like bajri bhakri (a coarse bread made from pearl millet, and a staple "common man"'s food in Western India). Then other Indian food options emerged in Manhattan. In my desire to try them on visits to the city I neglected to go back to Vatan.
In recent months there's been glowing talk of Bhojan (near 27th and Lexington) on this board and elsewhere, and I thought I'd try it. I also thought I'd go back to Vatan for comparison. A food experiment without a control is just gluttony.
The two restaurants couldn't be more different in decor. Vatan, laid out as it is like a fake village center, is famously kitschy, although I'm not sure that it's consciously so. Bhojan is less "ethnic", and more internationally appointed. It has colored Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs (or good copies), and woven vinyl placemats by Sandy Chilewich (or, again, good copies). The servers at Vatan are dressed in gold-embroidered saris, draped in the traditional style. Those at Bhojan wear mini-kurtas of the type available at trendier modern Indian clothing boutiques.
Bhojan is not a strictly Gujerati restaurant, although it offers a Gujerati thali. I ordered it along with several Gujerati appetizers. The besan dhokla (a fluffy steamed bread made with chickpea flour) was quite good, but the fresh chillies on it were remarkably mild. The khandvi (made from spreading a cooked chickpea batter thinly, then cutting it into strips when it dries) was appropriately slippery, but again mild. The methi thepla (a fenugreek flatbread) was the best of the bunch, and the most robustly flavored. The dishes on the thali were similarly good, but their flavors were modest in their aspirations. They tantalized the tongue, didn't dance on it. There was boondhi raita (fried chickpea batter droplets in yoghurt), dal, kadhi (a yoghurt-based sauce), two vegetables, two flat breads and rice. One of the vegetables was tondli, a type of gherkin. It's not commonly found in restaurants here, so I was pleased to see it, but it was rather blandly prepared. The breads were puris and mini bajri bhakris, the latter served with a touch of ghee and some pickle. The dal was tasty but lacked the sweet-spicy flavor that marks Gujerati lentils. All-in-all, if you ate the food on the thali without being told it was Gujerati, you might not easily identify it as such. It was good, not distinctive.
Bhojan shines, though, in the quality of the sweets at the counter in the front of the restaurant. I sampled the pedha, the coconut burfi, and the rasmalai. They were all impeccably fresh, with a clean milky flavor, easily the freshest sweets overall I've had in North America. It's worth going to the restaurant for the food, but in Michelin-guide language it's worth a detour for the sweets.
I ate at Vatan about three weeks later. On balance, the food was more robustly spiced here, and more authentically Gujerati. The dal was correctly sweet-spicy, and the bhakri (you have to order them specially and pay a surcharge) served with jaggery in addition to pickle and ghee. The quality is still uneven, mainly because they serve too much food. It's a pre fixe meal, and it comes with a huge appetizer thali, followed by an even huger main meal. The appetizer had mini samosas and batata wadas (both with exteriors that were not as crisp as they should have been, probably because they were not served the minute they were made), a rather poor version of ragda pattice (potato patties in a chickpea gravy, with a sweet-sour sauce on it), a battered chili, sev puri, semolina dhokla, more chickpeas, and a steamed spinach and flour mix. The flavors were on the whole strong and clear. The main thali came with several vegetable dishes (potato, cauliflower, spinach and corn), puris, dal, two kinds of rice (a peas pulao, and a nice rendition of khichdi, the lentil-rice combination), kadhi, kheer, and mango pulp (clearly from a can). Then, when we were reeling from this onslaught of food, they cleared our trays and brought out chai and dessert (an acceptable mango ice cream and a nice, warm lentil shira).
If you wanted to drop $30 plus on a meal, Vatan would be my clear recommendation. If you wanted to spend less and eat less, and take home some excellent Indian sweets, Bhojan would be a very good alternative.
409 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10016
102 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016