Shiva Natarajan knows what New Yorkers want. He's opened more than a dozen Indian restaurants in Manhattan, Connecticut, and Westchester in as many years, including Bhojan, with rose lassis we dream about, and Chola, home to the most lavish lunch buffet we've ever had the pleasure of mawing our way through. In fact, Natarajan's culinary empire includes four restaurants on the same street in Murray Hill. The newest is Chote Nawab, focusing on the meat dishes of India's princely states.
Daring to be contrary, we started with a half-order of tandoori broccoli ($8). A dose of mint chutney made the green veggie greener, the bitter veggie more bitter. (Thoughtfully, you can get half orders of the siri aur tandoor ke kababs, such as the meat assortment known as kabab peshkash.) Grilled onions and cherry tomatoes were there too, all charred, all smoky.
We also tried tunde ke kabab ($8), a specialty of Lucknow. According to legend, this popular North Indian dish has 160 spices. Chote Nawab's version, a misshapen, brick-colored mass, was as tender as an amma's love. We tasted cinnamon, garlic, cumin, pepper, garam masala, ginger, and cloves; about the remaining 153 spices, we can only say that we gobbled the minced meat up too fast to discern them.
The allepy pappas ($16) featured bite-size shrimp in a mild kokum-and-coconut curry. This seafood dish is a long way from Lucknow, hailing as it does from more southern regions. Peppercorns and cardamom pods floated by, giving acridity and warmth, respectively, to the sour-tart kokum. We dipped corners of garlic naan ($3.50) into the layered sauce.
Moving still further south, we tried the kori gassi ($14), a chicken curry from Mangalore. Our server asked if spicy food was alright, then paused and looked us over, hard, to double- and triple-check. As it turned out, his close attention was for naught. Perhaps the kitchen modified the dish, or perhaps heat is the most subjective of food sensations, and what's spicy for some is a nonevent for others. Gentle as it might have been, the curry evidenced a cumulative heat that built up in the back of the throat. We wanted the Hulk, but we got a slightly impassioned Bruce Banner.
Every few minutes a chef in whites arrived in the dining area bearing a noisy platter from the tandoor, and every few minutes all the diners looked up and smiled. The sizzle competed with the bhangra beats. One wall shows a sari-clad woman walking along a deserted street, another an advertisement for a Bollywood movie, both lit by Edison lights. With Chote Nawab, Natarajan has theorized that New Yorkers want a mix of North and South Indian dishes served in a space designed to evoke the concrete minimalism of Williamsburg coupled with the hokey village scenes of Little India. It's best for: a date in today's Curry Hill.