“Curry Hill" is the affectionate nickname for a cluster of Indian restaurants and groceries along Lexington Avenue between 27th and 29th streets in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood. It's a charming, low-key destination, drawing many New Yorkers of Indian descent as well the young and chic of all ethnicities and races. The fare is affordable and the ambience, friendly.
Unlike Chinatown with its mob scene of sidewalk stalls on Canal Street or Little Italy with its tall tales of shoot-outs in clam bars, the marker that tells you you're in Curry Hill is the many cabs parked along the street. The Indian cab drivers are either stopping for a meal or swapping out their cab with another driver.
Saravanaa Bhavan is a particularly hot destination these days and you'll have to wait in line during peak hours. It's a chain out of Chennai, India, formerly Madras, that has restaurants around the world. The Curry Hill branch is open all day, even for breakfast. It's bright, bustling and cheap. And for most Americans, a real culinary adventure.
This vegetarian place specializes in the cuisine of Southern India, especially dosas — magnificent rolled crepes made of some combination of rice or wheat flour and ground lentils. Here the dosas are very thin and crisp on the ends, extending beyond the edges of your plate. Saravanaa's has 15 varieties of dosa and two types of utthappam, smaller, thicker pancakes that take 20 minutes to make. All of these dishes come on large silver trays with coconut sauce, cilantro with curry leaf, and tomato sauce with lentil curry. Prices for these entrees range from $7.15 to $10.25. Dig in with your fingers and mix it up.
I was seated next to a lively young girl named Tamille and her father. They were stranded in the city because a storm had knocked out the power to the Jersey trains and they couldn't get back home to Princeton. Tamille complained that her dad had done her hair and she wasn't too pleased with the results. Lucky for me they had some good advice about what to order. Her father claimed Saravanaa's had the most authentic South Indian food in New York. He regarded the specialties like the dosas as a kind of snack food that could be eaten at any time of day.
Tamille had started out with Mini Tiffin ($10.25), a platter with a sampling of the restaurant's specialties: rava kichidi (cream of durum wheat, here cooked with vegetables), mini ghee idli (rice and lentil patties immersed in lentil curry and garnished with clarified butter), a mini masala dosa, and a sweet made of cream of wheat with honey butter, cashew nut and raisin. Tamille sampled everything but got a second helping of the wonderful mini ghee idli in a bowl, available as an appetizer.
If you look around when you visit Saravanaa's and see folks starting off their meal with what looks like doughnuts, they're really eating appetizers of vada, or lentil doughnuts, served with accompaniments like chutneys, onions and cilantro. They're delicious.
The place is noisy and cheerful. And though the service is brusque, you get whatever you order pretty quickly. So if you want to finish off the meal with their wonderful masala milk, made with pistachio, almonds and cashews, don't order it till you're done eating.
Another good and reasonably priced restaurant, the Curry Leaf (99 Lexington Ave., at the corner of 27th) features more eclectic Indian fare, with many of the specialties Americans are accustomed to in Indian food, like lovely, tender tandoori chicken ($11.95 for half/$19.95 for a full).
Service at the Curry Leaf is attentive. There are tablecloths and a certain relaxed gentility. The place has a large choice of lunch specials for $9.95, which come with rice, naan and salad, though the dinner menu is also available then.
For dinner, try the appetizer of mixed vegetable pakoras (veggies dipped in chickpea flour and fried, $7.95) or the tandoori appetizer of grilled chicken and lamb ($10.95). The vegetarian entrees like a spicy baingen bhurta (roasted eggplant and peas, $10.95) and the saag paneer (cottage cheese sauteed with spinach, $10.95) are especially good. Also be sure to try the mango lassi ($3.95), a cold, sweet, yogurt-based drink, thick with fruit.
The Curry Leaf was opened in 2000 by the folks who own the nearby store Kalustyan's —founded in 1944 — the most famous of a number of Indian groceries in the neighborhood and also a place frequented by professional chefs. In addition to an amazing array of ingredients for Indian cuisine, like 95 varieties of chutney and preserves, Kalustyan's also has hard-to-find items from all over, including the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Visit the Web site at kalustyans.com.
One of the pleasures in visiting Curry Hill is seeing the Indian diners, their feet surrounded by clusters of grocery bags full of special Indian ingredients purchased at the local stores, coming home to their cuisine in this little piece of India.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for the Tampa Review.