Junoon’s Mumbai Margarita and virgin Grapefruit & Saffron © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
It was love at first sip as I lowered my nose into a fragrant Masala Americano cocktail, a refreshing apératif especially made for the evening’s soirée at Junoon. A creation of head bartender Hemant Pathak, it had a unique combination of flavors including: Aperol, sweet vermouth, dehydrated orange, shiso leaf, cava and served in a whiskey tumbler. The level of attention to detail in bringing out the most in flavors sums up Junoon’s ethos of maximizing taste while appearing minimalist.
Ever since the demise of Danny Meyer’s Tabla, many contenders have stepped in to fill the void and bring progressive, upscale Indian dining back to New York. Hindi for passion, Junoon is the ambitious project of owner Rajesh Bhardwaj.
Junoon’s interior is sleek and very inviting with an enormous amount of space for a Flatiron restaurant including two dining areas and a stylish lounge. Dimly lit, it is, however, excessively dark in areas, making it difficult to really see the beauty of its dishes.
Having maintained its Michelin star for six years, Junoon’s caliber for quality is, nevertheless, on par with some of the city’s best restaurants. Yet, giving a modern flair to traditional Indian cuisine without sacrificing on taste is a difficult challenge. The hype of refining Indian dishes in many restaurants is often at warp speed but with only bland, lackluster results.
On the other hand, you could be at Junoon. Our tour of the restaurant’s spice lab just demonstrates Junoon’s borderline obsessive devotion to making new masala mixes. Like any top end kitchen should, all spices are roasted and blended in house. Maintaining authenticity, the chef selects spices to match regionality of its dishes. They include familiar and unusual ingredients like the tellicherry pepper from Kerala often used with roasting bones for soup stocks and preserved black lemons, which can be used in chutneys. Having a flair for the unorthodox, Junoon sometimes add star anise to its house-blend garam masala.
While some Indian restaurants’ dishes tend to taste alike because of using the same spice base, Junoon captures uniqueness in almost every bite. With each hors d’œuvre, the contrasts of flavors and spices made my mouth dance. The beetroot and roti and asparagus chat were night and day in terms of taste. The sweetness of the beetroot worked well with the roti which had a hit of spice while the creamy asparagus chat was light with a kofta-like texture.
The masala roasted pink salmon had lovely sweetness of the fish but with a very spicy avocado. And the grilled octopus, nice and tender, was done with precision and respect. The chili chicken – almost like a peri-peri style, served with spaghetti squash – delivered a serious take-no-prisoners belt of heat proved that Junoon is not afraid to challenge. It was absolutely delicious.
The attention of Junoon’s precision shows through its array of cocktails by Hemant Pathak inviting you to dive in a delicious pool of refreshment between the trays of canapés. Our favorites of the evening included a near-genius spicy tequila-based Mumbai Margarita with rose-chili syrup and a rim of coriander Maldon spiced salt. With every sip, each ingredient had a purpose carefully accenting one another.
The Spiced Cola Negroni made with gin, Campari, spiced Carpano Antica really complemented the grilled salmon and octopus and happily was not too sweet. The big surprise was an improvised virgin grapefruit juice cocktail with saffron that brilliantly tempered the tart sweetness of the grapefruit.
The combination of Junoon’s delicious bites and artisanal cocktails reminded us that good food should be wickedly delicious. Every ingredient had reason to be on the plate, and the drinks paired beautifully. Junoon Wine Director Michael Dolinski explained that like cocktails, the wines on the carte des vins have also been carefully selected to bring out rather than neutralize taste. “Indian food already has balance and may not necessarily need wine,” he said when explaining the challenge of pairing. But he said that people should experiment without only working with high profile wines.”If the wine stays above the acidity of the food,” he said, it is much easier to match. Working with contrasts such as pairing with a fruity rosé, as he suggested, can enhance rather than cancel flavor.
The evening was a delicious showcase of the diverse cuisines from a subcontinent too often ignored by some in the high end dining scene, especially in America. The flavor combinations produced by the chefs and bartenders of Junoon, however, are a testament that Indian cuisine is as vibrant and classy as it gets.
For more information or reservations, please visit Junoon.