Awadh in the Big Apple
Who would have thought that the princely state of Awadh exists in Manhattan? The flag of Dum Pukht has been unfurled by Gaurav Anand, a passionate culinary crusader, and the crest of the royal house is embedded right on the door of Awadh on the Upper West Side. This is an outpost of old Lucknow with its famous Galouti kababs, Lagan ki Raan and Kakori Kababs. Recently the Village Voice, the NY chronicle of everything cool, declared Awadh the best new Indian restaurant in New York.
Gaurav Anand, the Prince of Dum Pukht , is unlikely culinary royalty; the young entrepreneur is not descended from nawabs nor from great chefs but from a successful Delhi business family. The son of a noted lawyer, he could have landed up in the courts or in cuisine since his brother Saurabh owns the restaurant Trupti in Delhi. Food was a big part of his growing up and he learned cooking by every one of life’s experiences.
There is also a slow-simmering love story, a real dum pukht affair as he had met his future wife Shagun Mehandru when they were both just 14, two strangers headed on a train to Vaishno Devi with their respective families. Their paths crossed again some years later at a wedding and when she departed for higher studies to the US, he followed her there.
“He came for two weeks literally with one suitcase – and he didn’t leave for seven years,” she recalls, for he had set out to prove to her father that he was worthy of his daughter. Making it in New York was no easy task.
A Restauranteur’s Tale
An incredibly hard worker, Anand has done it all, from mopping the floor to cooking up the marinades to creating the restaurants. By the age of 33 he had set up Kebab Factory, Bhatti Indian Grill and the iconic Moti Mahal Delux. Still on a roll, this year, he opened his flagship restaurant Awadh.
Says Gaurav, “Growing up, I used to eat at Kareem’s and at Nizam’s and also at the fine dining spots Dum Pukht and Kandhar. I was always eating this food but I had been in the US for 8 years and had never seen this cuisine. So it’s a very specific and unique cuisine we’ve introduced here. It’s a risk taking battle. Now Americans realize that Indian food is not just butter chicken and even many Indians here have not tasted dum pukht so it is a unique flavor.”
Indian food sometimes uses a loudspeaker to announce its spices while at Awadh everything is subtle, slowly simmered and gestated in its own juices. The Galouti kababs, for instance, have such sophisticated blending that it is almost an out of body experience. This secret blend is created especially and Awadh is the only restaurant in New York serving Galouti Kababs and the unique Ulta Tawa Paratha.
On Becoming a Chef
Anand’s mentor and inspiration is India’s food maestro Jiggs Kalra with whom he’s worked closely in creating the menu at Awadh. In India owners don’t have to be chefs but for Anand the two roles are interwoven. He says, ” In the US you have to be a chef yourself if you want to take it to the next level. There is a huge turnover of staff in the US, so in order to keep the quality consistent, it’s important to be a chef. I don’t let anyone dominate my cooking.”
With all three restaurants garnering critical acclaim, Anand wants to make an impact on the New York food world and his guiding light is the noted chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud – ” wherever I look, I look to Daniel Boulud”, he says. He is also inspired by culinary authority Madhur Jaffrey and the innovative food entrepreneur Sushil Malhotra whose collaboration at Dawat he feels was a real game changer for Indian food in New York.
I popped into Awadh on a Saturday and the place was buzzing and packed. The intimate space has understated elegance, enhanced with antique gold wallpaper and a dramatic 8 foot bubble chandelier.
At Awadh, it’s about the past and the present – the dum pukht technique may be hundreds of years old but it’s the presentation and the accoutrements that add the wow factor to the food. Indeed, being a chef-restaurateur necessitates being a juggler and a magician and these dishes from the past are served plated in contemporary style, often with modern chutneys of celery, blueberries, figs or beetroot.
Some of the wonderful dishes include Nali Ki Nihari lamb shanks simmered overnight in an aromatic broth; Mahi Musallam whole fish crusted with turmeric and a masala spice mix; Lagan Ki Raan, leg of lamb cooked with a spice blend and onion tomato masala; and three types of Biryani cooked in a pot sealed by naan bread.
For vegetarians who are usually relegated to deep fried samosas and pakoras, it’s a gourmet feast. Bharwaan Khumb, Mawe ki Kakori, Khaas paneer tikka, and Karari Bhindi are just some of the appetizers.
Sharab Aur Kabab
If sharab was a big thing with Lucknowi nawabs, so is it in this Awadh, with consulting sommelier John Slover (Daniel) offering a rich repertoire of mostly European wines, including the Mirza Ghalib which is a French red. All the wines go very well with the Awadhi food. Two recommendations are Cassis – Domaine Du Bagnol 2012 (white): citrus fruit with warm citrus mid palette, fresh finish. Goes best with chicken curries and fish. Nero D’Avola Firriato 2011 (red from Sicily): Deep intensity of color, aromatic, dark fruits and floral aromas. It goes best with Dalcha Palak Kebab (spinach and dal kebab)
A chef’s Favorite Food
What is Anand’s own favorite food? He says, “After opening restaurants, I have never cooked at home – my favorites are my wife’s pasta, rajma and Punjabi curry. At the end of the day I love ghar ka khana. It’s like when you work in a candy store, you don’t want to eat any more candy!”
So what’s on his wishlist and are there are any new culinary frontiers to conquer?
Anand plans to open a 40 seats boutique restaurant where he would do only 40 dinners a night, cooking every dish with his own hands. The restaurant would be open for 8 months and closed for four months when he would wander the byroads of India, discovering new ideas. Every season he would present a new menu.
“In Spain they’ve done it – why can’t we do it?” he says. “I’d like to do it if I have the chance and if I have the money – in fact, I’m sure I’ll do it! Again it’s a risk – but I’ve already taken three good risks and they have paid off!”
In a city of where a new restaurant opens almost every day, Gaurav Anand is poised to savor new adventures, simmered slowly.
Awadh’s Signature Dishes
Awadh Gosht Biryani– boneless leg of lamb cooked in yogurt and saffron sauce, reduced and cooked dum pukht with rice. Sealed with dough and cooked in the tandoor for 5 minutes
Nalli Ki Nihari– Nihari is made with lamb stock, lamb shank and cooked on dum pukht for 8 hours. Final touch with clarified butter and besan
Kofta Dilnaaz– grated paneer and potato dumplings, coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried. Sauce is a cashew paste sauce with flavors of dill, cardamom, cloves and saffron.
(C) Lavina Melwani
(A shorter version of this article first appeared in Spice magazine)