There are certain neighborhoods we learn to shun even as tourists flock to them: Little Italy's schlocky red sauce joints, Midtown's hodgepodge of chain restaurants. Another is Curry Row, the stretch of East 6th Street between First and Second Avenues in the East Village.
The dim, Christmas lights-draped restaurants with their complimentary mango ice cream desserts and their eager waitstaff singing "Happy Birthday" can be charming, in their own way. Sometimes their dyed-red chicken tikka masala, spooned over that metal dish of basmati rice, hits the spot. But if you're seeking more complex Indian cooking, you have to venture farther afield to the street food of Jackson Heights and the giant, crispy dosas of Lexington Avenue's so-dubbed Curry Hill.
But in a city that thrives on reinvention, you can never be too sure of the existence of a cliché. That's why, when I heard about the recent opening of Malai Marke on Curry Row, I headed to East 6th Street to try it out. The restaurant had solid credentials: its owner, Shiva Natarajan, operates a number of modern, moderately-priced south and southeast Asian spots all over the city, and its chef, Karti Pant, comes from the Michelin-starred Junoon. As it turns out, this isn't your typical Curry Row restaurant, and it has a wealth of vegetarian-friendly food.
Malai Marke's complimentary pappadum were the first clue that I wasn't dining at just any old Curry Row spot: the lentil crackers were unusually crisp and greaseless, and the standard trio of chutneys served alongside—onion, cilantro and tamarind—each had clean, true flavors.
The appetizer Gobe Karare ($7) was described on the menu as "spicy smoked cauliflower with onions," so I was surprised when a plate of crisp-fried cauliflower arrived. The soft, tender vegetable is coated in light, wispy rice flour batter, and the smokey element comes in the form of smoked paprika flecked throughout the coating. The cauliflower is the perfect vehicle for scraping up the last bits of tamarind chutney that had accompanied the pappadum.
Ragara patties ($6) are a favorite street food in southern India: soft griddled potato patties topped with a riot of garnishes that provide color, flavor and texture. Here they come with yogurt, tamarind and mint chutneys, chopped red onion, torn cilantro, and sev, crisp-fried chickpea noodles that add a ton of crunch.
Malai Marke's menu is enormous: it offers many meat-based dishes, but also has two large sections of vegetarian and vegan plates. I was intrigued by the description of Paneer Khurchan ($14, pictured at top), grated creamy paneer cheese with fenugreek. Paneer, a mild, easy-to-make white cheese that is added to many Indian dishes, is incredibly versatile; it can be chewy, crunchy, creamy or oozy, depending on how it's cooked, and it has a rich milky flavor. This dish is incredibly luxurious, consisting of soft bits of cheese folded into a tomato-and-cream sauce much like tikka masala, with a mild, lingering spiciness to offset the sweetness of fenugreek leaves.
How can you resist a dish that bills itself as something you would eat at your in-laws' house? That's how Malai Marke's menu described Bindi Sasuralwali ($13), dry-fried okra with bits of sweet cooked-down onion and tomato clinging to the crispy pods. The okra is well cooked, with nary a hint of the sliminess that okra is known for, and is fragrant with cumin and cayenne.
When my friend and I sat down to eat at around 6 p.m., our waitress looked around the empty restaurant and asked us if we had made a reservation (we hadn't). About a half hour into our meal, we saw why: the room had completely filled with diners. When we left at 8 p.m., we passed a cluster of hopefuls eying the restaurant's seating plan, which was displayed on a computer monitor near the door. New Yorkers seem to have taken note: Curry Row is cool again.