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THE PASSION OF JUNOONWhen it comes to an opportunity to display ones passion for cooking, Executive Chef Vikas Khanna, recently voted the hottest chef of New York, found another home at a newly opened restaurant called Junoon, located at 27 W. 24th Street. The menu showcases the five celebrated cooking elements from Indias vast culinary regions: Tandoor (Clay Oven), Sigri (Open Fire Pit), Patthar (Stone Cooking), Tawa (Cast Iron Cooking) and Handi (Pot Cooking). A spice room, which can be viewed by the public, allows Vikas to grind and mix the specific savory ingredients daily using different types of grinders or a pestle and mortar.
If the name Vikas Khanna tingles your memory it may be due to an episode of Gordon Ramseys Kitchen Nightmare where he transforms a dying Manhattan restaurant into a successful Indian fare and renaming it Purnima.
As for Junoon, Rajesh Bhardwaj is the owner of what I would describe as a décor of relaxed elegance where diners are also free to take in the smells and cooking methods of an open kitchen. Rajesh told me that being a former chef he was the one to design the menu.
My friends Deveka and Ernie Leibovitz went with me to sample some of the menu. I say, "some of the menu" because there are so many items to choose from there would have been no way for me to taste even a quarter of the offerings.
You know how one describes a restaurants service as being "impeccable"? Junoon absolutely defines the dictionary meaning of the word. When seated, the chair was pulled out for me and assistance was given to help push it back to the table. The first person to come over had hot wet towels to cleanse your hands before eating and later came over after the dinner with hot wet towels. Great for both a cold night and not having to wash up before dinner.
There was one waiter who not only took the drink orders but was able to assist Ernie on which Cognac to choose and what to expect of a Japanese rice beer. He also made it a point to have our water glasses filled at all times.
Our waiter, Michael, was not only able to describe the contents and cooking methods of each item presented, but gave us a tale on why a particular lamb kabob came about.
After each set of sample dishes were eaten, all silverware and plates were immediately removed. The busboy would come over to clean the tablecloth of any food and when the food bit produced a stain, he brought over a cloth napkin to cover it up as the napkin matched the tablecloth. If any of us got up to go somewhere, a waiter was there to refold the napkin and place it on the table.
Okay, it gets better. Deveka and I needed to use the restroom. Come on, you know that women never go alone if there are any other women at the table. Deveka asked the waiter for its locale and he simply said that he would walk her to the direction of where it is. He then pointed to General Manager Robin Lewis who would be taking her. However, when I got up to approach the manager he noticed that I had a bit of a limp and asked if I preferred to go upstairs or downstairs. Well, just outside of the downstairs bathrooms is the Spice Room, so I opted to take those steps. Robin extended his arm and assisted me down the stairs and then described the Spice Room. Would you believe that he was waiting for us so that he could escort me up the stairs and back to my seat?
So, lets get to the food. Having dined on Indian cuisine, I expected my taste buds to bring back memories, some good and not so great. They didn't. Every morsel of food had flavors that were unrecognizable probably due to the way the herbs and spices were mixed. In fact there was not one piece of food that was overpowered by the flavor of one particular spice.
Peppery, spicy, hot don't give that to me. A few things were only a bit like that just due to my palate. I simply tolerated it and concentrated on the other flavors. Deveka and Ernie are used to peppery, spicy, hot and for the first time did not request some type of sauce, etc. to heighten the hot or perhaps assist the flavor.
What did we eat? Tree of Life Cauliflower crispy cauliflower dipped in a house garam masala crust with a garlic tomato chutney. Three lentil shorba (soup) with fresh turmeric, cumin and cilantro. Kakori Kebab finely minced lamb, cardamom, green papaya and spiced yogurt. Monkfish Tikka done tandoor style with hung yogurt, serrano chilies, and mustard seed. Chicken Awadhikorma- prepare handi style with almonds, caramelized onions, saffron, and yogurt.
Then there were the sides of Daal Makhani black lentils, ginger, onions and a spice blend; Naan specialty with prunes and walnuts; and a trio of chutneys, all of which used a fruit and all of which were on the mild side.
Dessert was even more surprising as they were quite unexpected and all delicious. Passion fruit bomb in a katafi nest with coriander basil seeds. Spiced Chocolate Cake with chocolate crunch, cocoa nibs and chai ice cream. A Trio of Kulfi an Indian style of making ice cream.
Ernie said that he was spoiled and that he would find it difficult to eat at another Indian restaurant. Deveka agreed. I rank the food as being a number 10 out of 10. More important was that it didnt leave an after taste that I seem to find with Indian cuisine.
March 03, 2011 - Queens Times
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