Every so often, you go someplace new, and you can't wait to tell everyone you know about it. I imagine it's how Neil Armstrong felt when he (allegedly) got back from the moon. Or how The New York Times felt when they discovered Brooklyn.
Today, that someplace is Babu Ji, an Avenue B restaurant serving Indian food and general happiness.
There are a lot of reasons to immediately fall hard for Babu Ji. There's the self-serve deli-style refrigerator stocked with over 40 different beers. There's the taxidermy peacock on top of it. There's the Bollywood movie projecting on one of the walls.
And there's the food. It's certainly different from what you'd find at most traditional Indian restaurants, but it's not "fusion," and it's also without the pretension that comes along with most "modern" takes on ethnic cuisine. Instead, like the space and overall environment, it just feels... original. The owners run a few restaurants in Melbourne, Australia, including the original Babu Ji, and whatever they've figured out there, we're glad they've brought to it New York.
The menu is split between items "from the street," which include plated appetizer-like options ranging from spicy fried yogurt-filled discs to a sweet whole smoked rainbow trout, and items "from the pots," which are mostly small saucy pots of curry filled with anything from raw scallops to figs. Everything we ate was excellent, and better yet, truly unlike any dishes - Indian or otherwise - we've tried before.
Everything we ate was excellent, and better yet, truly unlike any dishes - Indian or otherwise - we've tried before.
For dessert, there's kulfi, a cardamom-honey-pistachio ice cream pop made in a handmade antique metal tube. It's delicious, and made even better by the story from Babu Ji's chef, who runs the restaurant with his wife, about how his grandmother used to make kulfi by sticking the tin tubes in freezing water flowing in from the Himalayas. He may be the single friendliest person in the entire East Village (we literally saw the guy pick up and smile at a baby), and that energy seems to permeate the whole restaurant. When's the last time you saw a restaurant patron turn to the two tables on either side of him and demand they try his curry? Have you ever seen that? People seeming genuinely happy about life in the middle of New York City? That's how you know something good is happening here.
As we understand it, "Babu Ji" means "sir," with the connotation of "local dude who runs sht." And while the restaurant may be new, it's a fitting name - this place is local, and casual, but it's about to run sht.
Now go tell everyone you know.
This is sold on the menu as an "Indian nachos," and the description's pretty on the money. Crackers are topped with chickpea, cucumber, pomegranate, tamarind, and mind and covered with a slightly sweet yogurt chutney. A nice way to start off.
If we're using Super Bowl snack analogies here, these taste remarkably like jalapeno poppers. The yogurt in question is really more like cheese, which fills a crispy croquette. They're spicy, and sitting in a pink beetroot ginger sauce. Totally great.
What happens when you soak a whole fish in ginger and honey, and then smoke it in a tandoori oven? GREAT THINGS. It's crispy, caramelized, and kind of puts any miso broiled cod to shame. Just beware of bones. Don't be afraid.
A thick, coconut milk-based yellow curry with raw scallops dropped in. If you like rich flavors and are down with an uncooked scallop, do it.
Quality chicken chunks in a yoghurt, ginger, garlic, tomato curry sauce. This dish is likely closer to resembling the Indian food you're used to, but it's better.
You're going to want some naan to soak up the sauces. Go for the garlic flavors - it's deep and funky and crispy like a pizza crust from Motorino.
The restaurant's signature dessert, an ice cream pop frozen in a pointy metal tube. You roll the tube between your hands to force the pop out - it's fun, and delicious.