27 W. 24th Street, New York, NY
Monday, May 9, 2011
What is considered a bad omen in the restaurant world? As we walk to Junoon restaurant in the Chelsea/Flatiron neighborhood, scuttling across the sidewalk is not a black cat but the first cockroach sighting of the year. It was bound to happen eventually – this is New York City after all, and the weather is getting warmer — but why now? Hopefully it is not a sign of things to come.
Stress is also apparent as we prepare for a 17-day around the world trip, which looms less than a week away. Despite the long to-do list and having a tight budget loosely in order, we stay true to not letting any ninth of the month go unfed. In fact, our trip is the primary reason we now enter the palatial restaurant: Mumbai, India is the second stop on our journey around the globe (oh, and we also love Indian food!).
Junoon, in a nutshell, is upscale Indian and the muted but sophisticated limestone interior feels ‘of the moment’ and very New York City. The grand double-doors of the new space open up to a 50-foot promenade, complete with mirror pool and silver tree-of-life sculpture that splits Junoon’s dining room in half. We make our presence known to the hostess and wander to the lounge area for a pre-dinner cocktail. The crowd is a mix of wealthy hipsters and business groups and we shoulder our way to the bar for specialty cocktails.
The first glass arrives with a lovely fruit garnish, but the sticky exterior takes away from the champagne’s elegance. The bartender is forced to find the other cocktail in the recipe book; not a shameful act, per se, but it sure puts into question our conversation for recommendations. No wonder he kept trying to sell us three of the easier cocktails on the list. We already find ourselves discussing disappointments as we perch on one of the hand-carved benches.
A few sips in and the blonde hostess, looking shaky in her stiletto heels, leads us to a corner table with a good view of the large space. Adjusting our eyes, we notice how the ambience of the room is robbed by a flood of light from the kitchen. Not only that, but the sterile-looking kitchen doors look like they would be more at home in a hospital’s cafeteria. We share a sigh of gratefulness not to be facing the flourescent view.
Kitchen lighting aside, Indian music plays overhead at just the right level and everyone appears to be enjoying themselves. Though most diners are formally dressed, there are a few denim-wearers who look out of place in Junoon’s grandeur. What happened to dress codes anyway?
The dinner menu is detailed and lengthy but our eyes divert to the ‘Five Elements’ tasting course at $75 a person that incorporates all the regions of India including what else but the five elements of cooking: Handi (pot cooking), Sijri (open fire pit), Pathar (stone), Tawa (griddle) and Tandoor (clay oven).
Once ordered, we are well coached by the Sommelier towards a $55, 2009 Brick House Gamay, which holds up nicely against the varying spices and flavors of the long meal. He does a nice tableside wine service, and it is more formal than we have seen before (the wine has its own table for crying out loud). For dinner, starters include quail and piri-piri shrimp with avocado, but the lobster tail and lamb are the highlights of the meal. Two decaf espressos help us wash down our chocolate-spiced cake and an unappetizing date pudding cake.
Midnight ticks near and we are now one of only two tables shutting the place down. Thanking our server, we take a trip to the restroom before walking home. The grey slip-protector on the stairs feels cheap and out-of-place after admiring the beautiful Indian sculptures above. The same juxtaposition sits at the bottom of the stairs where a spice-grinding room stands near bathroom doors similar to those of Penn Station.
Junoon strives hard to provide a formal Indian experience and from the décor to the ambience to the food, it does come close. But it’s often the little things that leave a lasting impression, much like the blonde hostess who noticeably switches to flip-flops in the middle of the evening. Although the food for most part was sensational – Chef Vikas Khanna clearly is the star here – we are now more than ever excited for some local Indian cuisine. Mumbai here we come!
EXPERIENCE = 6/9