There's a reason Indian food is an old standby for vegetarian diners in this city: the cuisine boasts an incredibly varied, intensely flavorful array of dishes for meat-free eaters to choose from, and the wonderful breads and fluffy rice served alongside such curries help ensure a filling, texturally interesting meal.
Manhattan is home to no small number of excellent Indian restaurants that offer compelling vegetarian dishes, but they often fall into just two categories: northern Indian-style restaurants, with plenty of meat dishes and only a small corner of the menu devoted to standard vegetarian options like saag paneer (spinach with fried cheese) and chana masala (spicy stewed chickpeas); and totally vegetarian, Southern-Indian style restaurants offering lighter, fresher, dishes such as coconut-heavy dosas (thin, crispy rice and lentil crepes). It's not often that I step into an Indian restaurant that falls somewhere between these two extremes.
That's why it was so refreshing to eat a meal at Moti Mahal Delux, located on the Upper East Side's First Avenue. I saw dishes here I've never seen at any other Indian restaurant; and, best of all, they all tasted great.
I started with Dahi Palak Kebab ($7.95), described on the menu as "tempered spinach/Hung yogurt piccatas." I had no idea what a) tempered spinach b) Hung yogurt or c) piccatas were, but I was delighted when what showed up to the table were three spinach-yogurt patties with a texture I've never encountered before: crispy and lacy on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside. Their slightly sweet flavor was offset by the spicy, tangy tomato and onion relish served alongside the complimentary pappadum.
I've long been a fan of paneer, that fresh, squeaky white cheese that fries up so well, so I was excited to try Chutney Paneer Tikka ($10.95), skewered cubes of the cheese that are cooked inside the restaurant's fiery tandoor oven and smothered in a bright, refreshing mint sauce. The cheese had a mild, milky flavor and crispy, smoky exterior, and it was difficult to stop eating.
When it came time to choose main dishes, I opted for two I'd never heard of, starting with Dum Aloo Kashmairi ($13.95, pictured at top), or baby potatoes in a rich red gravy. I'd never seen potatoes featured as the main ingredient in a curry, and I wasn't disappointed: the tiny, tender new potatoes were bathed in an impossibly rich, cream-laden tomato sauce subtly flavored with chile powder and turmeric.
Next up was Dum Ke Phool ($13.95), slow-cooked broccoli in a saffron-flavored yogurt sauce thickened with ground nuts and enriched, yet again, with plenty of cream. I'd always thought of broccoli as a cool-climate, "western" vegetable, but it seemed right at home in its pool of creamy, fragrant sauce.
When I got home from Moti Mahal Delux, I did a little research and discovered that the restaurant, which is an international chain, specializes in Mughlai cuisine, a style of cooking developed by the imperial kitchens of the Mughlai empire, which lasted for roughly 300 years after it began in 1526. It made complete sense to me that the rich, creamy, luxurious dishes I had tasted descended from those that were once served to emperors.
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