According to Jessi Singh, northern India is full of “babu jis.”
A babu ji (literally, “father” or “grandfather” in Hindi) is, he explained, the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor, a character—yes, you know him!—who seems to know everything and tells everyone what to do. And who of course loves to indulge in food and good company.
It’s also the namesake of his popular restaurant, Babu Ji, which opened this June in Alphabet City.
Singh was clearly the official mayor there, as he shuffled between the kitchen and the front of the house, hopping between tables, explaining to guests how to eat different dishes.
“Any of our guests [who] come in, we want to be a part of their dining [experience],” Singh said. “Hospitality is big in the Indian culture, we don’t serve and leave. We are a part of their conversation.” Singh is both the chef and co-owner.
Jennifer Singh, his partner and co-owner, is the mastermind behind the bold and modern design. Food-related Hindi proverbs in elegant Devanagari script and colorful portraits adorn the walls.
At Babu Ji, the flavors are authentic and the presentation is modern, with a focus on high quality. Chef Singh sources ingredients such as day boat sea scallops, free-range chicken, and rainbow trout from Max Creek Hatchery.
A portion of the menu is devoted to street food.
“Street food is very big in India,” Singh said. “Every Indian will somehow, at some part of the day eat something from the streets. It’s a huge cuisine on its own.”
I had to start with the Gol Gappa ($12), a popular street food eaten across India. Indian food lovers might also know it as “pani puri,” a crisp round puff with a creamy filling, meant to be devoured in one bite.
As soon as I popped one into my mouth, I felt an explosion of flavors and textures. A tangy sweetness was first, followed by the crunch of the puff, and then the creaminess of the yogurt filling. Finally I was left with the lingering flavor of the “pani” or spicy mint water.
At Babu Ji, though, there are also milder dishes, such as the Paneer Tikka ($18), and it’s possible to satisfy many different palates.
Paneer, a soft cheese made by curdling milk, on its own has no flavor. But when Singh uses it for Paneer Tikka, he makes a sandwich of it with the addition of fresh ginger, pear, and a beet coleslaw, which add a refreshing touch. In no time at all, we filled ourselves up on it.
Then there is the Yoghurt Kebab ($14), a croquette filled with yogurt, presented in spectacular fashion in a creamy pool of pink, with a beautiful, fuchsia flower sitting on the top.
Singh makes it with “hung yogurt,” that is, yogurt hung overnight. The moisture drips out or evaporates, leaving behind a creamy, smooth yogurt. Result: the croquette just about melted in my mouth. And then there’s the beet-ginger sauce, playing a perfect supporting role by injecting a good dose of ginger flavor.
A dish that I would go back for is the Papadi Chaat ($14), an Indian version of nachos and salsa, which was utterly addictive.
The chickpeas, cucumber, and pomegranate seeds piled atop were refreshing. Surprisingly the crispy wafers didn’t lose their crunchiness, even though they were dipped in yogurt, tamarind, and mint chutneys. By the end of it we were still licking our spoons.
“People think with Indian food everything is cooked down, but there is so much to Indian food, [that a lot of people] really don’t know about,” Singh said.
From the Brass Pots
Babu Ji offers a wide range of stews and curries. But my favorite was the Butter Chicken ($24) paired with the sesame and onion seed naan ($10).
It made me reminisce about my childhood days, when anything that tasted delicious would stay in my mouth until I was tapped on the cheek and made to forcefully swallow it. This time I was doing it again.
The sweet and tangy flavor of this curry with chunks of chicken pieces paired well with the toasted flavor of the naan. The seasoning of fenugreek herb added the perfect touch to it.
What should you drink with your curry? Look to the beer fridge! You can simply help yourself to a wide selection of craft India Pale Ales that go well with the curries. There are also lagers like Kingfisher from India.
“Beer and curry are a perfect match,” Singh said. “They are made for each other.”
A Sweet Ending
There is an ancient Hindi proverb on one of the walls that says, “May your mouth be filled with sugar and ghee,” an expression said to those who come bearing good news.
Kulfi is good news indeed.
Singh follows an old recipe for this homemade Indian ice cream ($6) by cooking milk on low heat, letting it become thicker and creamier. He then adds cardamom, honey, and pistachios, before pouring the mixture into metal molds and freezing them.
As it melted in my mouth, this chewy and nutty ice cream brought a smile to my face—a fitting ending.
175 Avenue B (at E. 11th Street)
Brunch: Saturdays & Sundays