For most diners, Indian food is synonymous with spice. But spice is but one factor in the preparation of delectable Indian cuisine, and while many restaurants in New York provide serviceable fare that gives the American palate the 'kick' it desires, very few take it to the next level, and as a result many diners never get to experience the full intensity and beauty of real Indian cooking.
Luckily for us, there is a place in the city that provides exactly that level of culinary excellence. Moti Mahal Delux, on the corner of First Avenue and 63rd Street in Manhattan, opened in the second half of 2012 to critical acclaim by the New York Times (2 stars), a Michelin Recommendation, a positive lunch review by the Wall Street Journal, and a television segment on CNBC. Yet accolades alone do not capture the spirit of a restaurant, and it is the ongoing commitment by the owners to a high standard of cuisine and service that makes MMD special.
First, a little history. The Moti Mahal Delux brand, which is famous in India, traces its origins to 1975 in New Delhi, when restaurateur Sanjiv Kohli opened two restaurants in upscale areas to provide a fine dining experience. The restaurants became popular and, under Kohli, soon went global (except for New York). That was when Kohli met Gaurav Anand, an emigrant businessman with the restaurant trade in his blood who had started a successful restaurant in the area dubbed 'Curry Hill' called Bhatti Indian Grill. Bhatti is known for its tasty kabobs, relaxed ambiance, and BYOB. Spotting an opportunity to take his brand even further upscale, Gaurav partnered with Kohli to open Moti Mahal Delux.
Ironically, the new restaurant took over a spot vacated by another Indian restaurant that had failed, but that did not discourage the owners, who believed that great food and service would give them the edge they needed regardless of the location. They were right, and now MMD is consistently busy on weekdays and has lines out the door on weekends.
But enough historical appetizers. It's time for the main course.
Like most Indian restaurants, MMD boasts three staples that every diner must try, but unlike other places, MMD's versions are vastly superior. The first is the butter chicken, a dish that is usually made with canned tomato paste, domestic butter, and prepackaged spices, none of which can elicit the flavor of real butter chicken. MMD, by contrast, uses fresh tomato puree, authentic Indian butter, and a special concoction of spices called garam masala that they mix and roast in-house. This last is perhaps the secret sauce for this dish, consisting of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, black cardamom, whole coriander, and whole cumin. The result is mouth-watering and memorable.
The other staples are the black lentils, which consist of three different lentils, cooked in fresh tomato puree and signature spices for 8-12 hours (most restaurants cook them for 2 hours), and the tandoori chicken, which is made different by the quality of meat used (the chicken needs to weigh less than 500 grams for maximum flavor and is the most expensive to buy), Indian yogurt, garam masala of course, a blend of whole red Kashmiri peppers, and no artificial color. This last might seem trivial but it is not. Artificial color is a common cheat used by many Indian restaurants to give tandoori chicken the attractive reddish hue that we associate with this dish but it is exactly that -- a cheat that suggests flavors that aren't actually there.
But MMD has a lot more to offer than these basic dishes. My favorites are the unusually juicy and tender New Zealand baby lamp chops, cooked in the tandoor oven for exactly seven minutes with roasted mustard seeds, yellow chili powder, fresh chopped ginger, yogurt, and white vinegar; tangy scallops marinated in a mango chutney with chopped peppers and ginger, pan-seared, and served on a bed of a spicy celery sauce to complement the sweet taste of the mango chutney; crab butter garlic, made with spring onions, Indian butter, ginger-garlic paste, and some salt, but without curry to avoid contaminating the flavor of the crab meat.
Still, no Indian dining experience can be complete without a real biryani (rice with meat or vegetables and spices) and this is where MMD truly excels.
Most biryanis that I have tried in New York tend to be glorified fried rice with little of the flavor or depth that makes this North Indian dish so unique. At MMD, they cook long grain basmati rice with saffron, cinnamon, and cardamom with a touch of clarified water separately before pouring it into a special clay pot containing a sauce with chicken, goat, lamb, or vegetables. Two more layers of sauce and rice are added to this and topped off with fried onions, saffron water, mint, and cilantro. The mouth of the pot is then sealed with dough to preserve the flavor and aroma, and heated in a tandoor oven over a low flame. The biryani is then served to diners who can crack open the dough to access this rich and very authentic meal.
Such attention to small details is what makes eating at MMD a great experience, along with courteous service and the presence of at least one of the owners at the restaurant almost every evening, including on weekends. The atmosphere is welcoming and makes you want to come back.
And neither is MMD the only good choice for fans of Indian food, since the same team is now launching a new restaurant, Awadh, on the Upper West Side in the first week of June.
Awadh will serve Lucknowi food, a rich and storied cuisine of Muslim origin, that includes lamb, seafood, and vegetarian kebobs, biryanis and other dishes cooked in the slow dum pukht style to elicit maximum flavor. The new restaurant will have 70 seats spread over two floors, a private dining room, and full bar, all with a modern feel. For wine enthusiasts, famed Sommelier John Slover< will be in attendance to help diners pair their food from 80 selections of wine (MMD has 30 with a particularly smooth blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah called Mirza Ghalib that pairs well with Indian food).
So whether you are a connoisseur of great Indian cuisine or just want to experience something more authentic and satisfying than the ordinary food served at most New York City restaurants, I highly recommend trying Moti Mahal Delux, and when it opens, Awadh.
Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator, proud New Yorker, and an aficionado of good cuisine. Follow him @sanghoee.