Junoon: Is Fine Dining Indian Worth The Price of Admission?
27 West 24th Street (between 5th and 6th; map); 212-490-2100; junoonnyc.com
Service: Excellent. Polite and attentive. Our waiter was nice enough to add an extra shrimp when we told him our party of four wanted to split the dish.
Setting: A gorgeous lounge and dining room.
Must-Haves: Eggplant Chaat, Thali Platters, Vegetable dishes, Lunch Prix Fixe
Cost: Appetizers $12 to $21, Mains $24 to $36, vegetable dishes $16 to $18.
Truly high quality Indian restaurants are less frequent in Manhattan than we'd like. Walk into a curry house in Murray Hill and you'll more than likely encounter food that's bland, greasy, and generally dumbed down. But if you head a few blocks West to Junoon, you'll find a totally different story. Service will be polite and attentive, not uncaring and oppressive. Your plates and silverware will change between courses. And you'll be presented food that takes demonstrable pride in the unique flavors and textures that Indian cuisine has to offer.
If Junoon has a mission, it's to show that Indian food is just as deserving of linen napkins, sommeliers, and the fine dining experience as any other. It sticks reasonably close to the classics we recognize: curries, tandoori meats, kebabs, and flatbreads. More avant garde restaurants shove you into something new; Junoon attempts a gentler nudge. The desired effect is a simple one: to have its diners, who may not otherwise give the cuisine a second glance, see what Indian food really tastes like when made with quality ingredients and careful technique. The question is: with prices at over three or four times that at a low-end curry house, does Junoon have a reasonable value proposition to offer?
Curry house staples like Chicken Korma ($26) are a far-cry from the steam table curries you'll find at the lunch buffets downtown. Charred, tender bites of chicken get a kiss of smoke from the tandoor oven before being simmered in a cashew-based sauce that shows intense but balanced spicing (a tad heavy on the cardamom) and a creamy nuttiness. Chicken korma, I never even knew ya.
The food at Junoon often plays with texture in a way that you're unaccustomed to seeing in Indian cuisine. In the Eggplant Chaat ($12), baby eggplant is sliced just thin enough to crisp up, but thick enough to retain a moist tender core. Work fast when the plate is put in front of you. The goal is to mix together the eggplant with the yogurt and tangy tamarind and get it all in your mouth together before the sev—fried chickpea noodles sprinkled on top—lose any of their delicate crunch. I could eat a lot of this.
Unfortunately only available at lunch, but certainly one of the best deals in the area, the Thali Platters ($21 for vegetarian) are the fancy Indian version of a bar's sampler platter. Dip the buttery herbal roti into a cardamom-scented stew of chickpeas and ginger or pile some saag aur gobi ke bhurji—that's tiny cauliflower florets and spinach flavored with fenugreek and cumin—on your rice and drizzle it with creamy raita. Go ahead and use your fingers—it's ok.
If you're used to standard Indian offerings, don't be surprised when you bite down on the paneer akbari and find that it's completely free of the squeaky rubberiness that can plague the fresh cheese. A non-vegetarian thali gives you a selection of lamb, chicken, and shrimp for $4 more, and with enough food to feed two, it won't run you much more than the cost of a pre-made midtown sandwich.
Drinks are a pleasant surprise: they deftly blend Indian accents into classic cocktails. The Spice Trail ($14) is a simple but tasty martini made with garam masala-infused vermouth and orange bitters, while a Proxy Sour ($13) riffs on a pisco sour with herbs and green chili. It thankfully avoids the over-spiced heat that chili-based drinks can have.
Even the non-alcoholic cocktails are thoughtfully composed. Pomegranate juice comes gently flavored with almond-y orgeat, orange, and lemon juice for a virgin mai tai that manages to maintain the real drink's complexity and brightness.
A $24 lunch prix fixe is probably the best deal to be had on the menu. It'll get you a choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert, all-in. I'd go for the chilled spring pea soup ($12). There wasn't anything particularly Indian about it, but that didn't stop it from being delicious. It's a sweet and creamy swirl of spring that sits cool on the tongue, slowly revealing hints of ginger, mint, and a touch of green chili spice.
One of the rare dishes on the menu that shows some sort of fusion element, a Spiced Lamb Burger, available as part of the $24 lunch prix fixe, is a perfectly fine patty of black-cardamom flavored lamb meatloaf served with a chili jam that tastes mostly of tomato paste. The crisp, onion-y bhaji (err, onion rings) are the highlight of the plate.
There are definitely low points on the menu. Mediocre seafood seems to be a running theme. While the Piri Piri Shrimp ($15 for three—ours is pictured with a fourth) are cooked to a nice tender crunch, the ketchup-y sauce is overwhelming. Neither is the plate a completed, composed dish. We had trouble figuring out what the orange slices, avocado, and jicama were doing there, or what they added to the shrimp. It felt more like an uninspired attempt to gussy up the plating in an attempt to merit a $5-per-shrimp upcharge.
Similarly, we could find little in a dish of nicely cooked but poorly composed Sholapuri Halibut to merit a $34 price tag. With a thick, spicy tomato sauce that utterly overwhelmed the delicate white fish in both flavor and sheer volume, we may as well have been eating Sholapuri Paneer or even Sholapuri Tofu.
Lamb Boti Kebab is among the most tender lamb kebabs I've had anywhere. Marinated with yogurt, garam masala, ginger, and mustard oil, the exterior gets that soft, vaguely chalky (in a good way) texture that keeps it soft even with a hard sear in the tandoor oven. At $29 for 8 chunks of lamb, it's a pricey entrée, particularly when you consider that it comes with no garnishes asides from a drizzle of cilantro chutney.
It brings up a question that my wife was asking later on that evening: what is the value proposition for a restaurant like Junoon? With some fancied-up versions of what are traditionally inexpensive ethnic cuisines in New York, price hikes come with not just higher quality ingredients and nicer service, but a chef's individual take on the food as well.
Think places like Harold Dieterle's Kin Shop or Alex Stupak's Empellón where we gladly shell out $21 for goat curry or $12 for a pair of tacos not just because it's great food, but because it's got a chef's unique flair and interpretations. We pay for the personality as much as for the ingredients.
Likewise, four soup dumplings for $10 may seem like a hefty price to pay at RedFarm when you can get eight for $3 in Chinatown, until you taste them and realize that Joe Ng's take—fragrant with crab, pork, and yellow leeks—is not just better, but indeed more interesting.
At Junoon, the dishes are no doubt better than any you'll find at a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant run by Bengalis on Curry Row, and there's something to be said about polite waiters, great cocktails, a nice wine list, and a beautifully elegant setting. But the food sticks to literal interpretations of the same dishes. It's frustrating to me, because I'd so love to have access to Indian food this good all the time, yet I have a hard time justifying the price structure to myself (or to my wife).
So if Junoon's goal is not to re-interpret Indian food, then what is it trying to do? One theory is that it's trying to expose Flatiron lunchers to accepting Indian food as a viable alternative to steaks or burgers. That's a reasonable mission, and one that it can perhaps accomplish, particularly given the far more reasonable prices at lunch.
A Thali plate or prix-fixe meal can be had for $25 and under (that's less than the price of a single entrée at dinner). That's a price I can get behind, though last Friday afternoon, the dining room was troublingly empty. Another alternative: go for dinner but stick with the vegetable-based dishes (which in our experience is the best stuff on the menu anyway). Whether Junoon manages to drum up the business it needs to stay alive in a high rent neighborhood remains to be seen, but for now, take my advice: go try the eggplant chaat while you can.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.