A Full-Throated Defense of Traditional Indian Cooking


Restaurant Review

A Full-Throated Defense of Traditional Indian Cooking

Adda Indian Canteen
NYT Critic's Pick
★★
Indian
$$
31-31 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City
718-433-3888

More Information

  • Nov. 20, 2018

Something has been missing from New York’s current Indian restaurant scene, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I ate the kaleji masala at Adda Indian Canteen in Long Island City, Queens.

Modernization is the theme unifying many of the Indian restaurants that have taken root around the city over the past few years. At the rarefied end of the spectrum, we have Indian Accent bringing the cuisine into line with the intricate techniques and plating that can land restaurants on the itineraries of list-clutching gastrotourists. At the populist end, we’ve seen Indian cooking gastro-pubbed by Babu Ji and other new places that try to make non-desis feel at home with house-party vibes, beer in a self-service fridge, and dishes like naan pizzas and samosa burgers.

New York hasn’t seen nearly as many recently opened restaurants devoted to the pure, original stuff that is getting modernized. The snacks pitched together in a blur by hawkers at folding tables and rolling carts by the side of the road; the gravy-soaked stews and sauceless dry curries patiently made from 25 or so vegetables and seasonings, all of them chopped, ground, fried and simmered at home by those keepers of the culinary flame known collectively as the aunties — we’ve seen interpretations of this food, squeezed from eyedroppers and prepared for their photo shoots with edible flowers. But new places cooking the genuine article have been scarce.

There is a problem of missing context here; twists on tradition don’t really resonate when tradition is hard to find in its untwisted form. And for anyone who truly loves Indian cooking, there is a more pressing problem of missing flavor. Five dots of tandoori-spice oil just won’t land on the taste buds with the impact of a full plate of charred and steaming tandoori chicken, no matter how evenly spaced those dots are.

I hadn’t given much thought to either problem, to tell the truth, until I made it to the out-of-the-way patch of Long Island City where Adda Indian Canteen operates. This is not the part of that neighborhood where high-rise apartments grow overnight and Amazon will soon tiptoe in with 25,000 employees. Adda is east of all that, under a National Guard recruiting office, surrounded by a thicket of railroad tracks and highway overpasses. Unless you are looking for it, you are not likely to end up in the small dining room, in which Indian tabloids have been upcycled as wallpaper.

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Chintan Pandya, the chef, cooks for people who enjoy spices.CreditAn Rong Xu for The New York Times

Once I’d found it, one of the first things I ate was the kaleji masala, chicken livers in a dark gravy seasoned with fresh ginger and garam masala. Right away I realized that this was the kind of Indian food the city has been hungry for, or at least the kind that I’d been hungry for: made with care but no pretense; seasoned for people who love the interplay of spices; presented without apology in all its brown, lumpy glory; and complex in ways that demand full attention.

Adda (ah DAH) Indian Canteen was opened in September by Roni Mazumdar, who owns it, and Chintan Pandya, who is the chef. The two men already run Rahi, in Greenwich Village, perhaps the best of the casual, modernizing Indian restaurants, where Mr. Pandya serves original notions like tandoori skate and sends almost everything out of the kitchen decorated with edible flowers.

They’ve taken another angle at Adda, mining family recipes and the lessons Mr. Pandya absorbed from civilian cooks around India. The menu travels beyond the standard north Indian dishes most New Yorkers already know, but even those dishes, when they appear, are prepared so emphatically that they don’t resemble anything else in town. Adda is a lusty, full-throated defense of traditional cooking.

Saag paneer, the grayest of old gray mares in many Indian restaurants, is coltishly energetic at Adda. The cheese is made in the kitchen, and it’s gorgeously soft, while the saag is a tart and peppery mix of wilted arugula, sorrel, spinach and mustard greens.

Mr. Pandya does very well by the class of sidewalk treats called chaat. Each delivers the messy riot you’d hope for, busy with crunchy hieroglyphs of fried noodles and splattered with yogurt and tamarind sauce. One chaat is anchored by a big kale fritter, another by several smaller chips of battered, spiced lentil cakes, and a third by fried smashed potatoes and chickpeas. But discerning chaat lovers should probably go directly to the dahi batata puri, soft potato packed into hollow globes of fried dough that you can pick up and eat with your fingers, like chocolates.

Anything that passes through Adda’s tandoor is worth investigating. Seekh kebabs, made with lamb that’s coarsely ground by hand, come out of the tandoor juicier and pinker than the usual; Mumbai-style tandoori macchi, a skewered pompano rubbed with ground mustard seeds and cilantro, is lightly charred and smoky after roasting, but still moist; bhatti da murgh, a double-marinated chicken thigh and drumstick, is so thickly crusted with coriander and cumin that it crunches when you bite it.

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Adda serves home-style cooking from around India, like the Lucknow biryani at center.CreditAn Rong Xu for The New York Times

My server expressed an enthusiasm about the poussin — plunged into the tandoor in one piece after marinating in vinegar, yogurt, fresh red chiles and kala namak, the sulfurous black salt of India — that you typically find in new converts to a cult. After tasting it, I was ready to join.

He was enthusiastic about almost everything, as it turned out; the service at Adda is nothing if not eager to talk up the food. (Getting your water glass refilled is another story.) Placing a dish of yogurt and pomegranate seeds next to the goat biryani that is steamed under a lid of dough, he said, “This is going to be your best friend when the spice in the biryani starts to hit you.” It was, in fact, one of the fiercest biryanis I’ve ever met, and the yogurt tamed it so that I could taste the tender goat meat and crisp, bittersweet fried onions.

Few things on the menu are quite as chile-drenched as the biryani, but Mr. Pandya definitely favors India’s more intense flavors. Adda is not big on soft-spoken cream sauces; the coconut milk in the Malvani prawn curry from the South Konkan coast, for instance, has a pronounced kick. (It’s very good if you get it on a night when the prawns are firm and not spongy.) And while Adda does serve some vegetables, it would not make my list of the 20 best local Indian restaurants for vegetarians.

It would, however, be the place I’d send you if you want to know how good Delhi butter chicken can be. Or if you don’t yet believe that rara gosht, chunks of lamb stewed on the bone with spiced minced lamb, is not redundant but luxurious.

And Adda is the first restaurant I’d tell you about if you woke up one morning hungry for bheja fry, goat brains cooked with onions, ginger and a considerable number of fresh green chiles. “Like soft scrambled eggs,” our server said, accurately. I might point out that a typical Indian bheja fry is drier, with a higher ratio of brains to sauce. But I would not necessarily mean that as a complaint.

Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

EMAIL petewells@nytimes.com. And follow Pete Wells on Twitter: @pete_wells.

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