At Junoon, a Symphony of Flavors
I do not know why, but I have always put off my visit to Junoon, perhaps for fear of staying longer than usual and eating more than I should.
Junoon means passion in Hindi; in Arabic, it means passion or love, almost to the point of insanity. Enter and you will embark on a journey that will be more pleasurable once you become familiar with the basic concept. Here you are suddenly submerged in a different yet very exciting culinary experience that will open your mind with a deeper appreciation of celebrated authentic Indian cuisine with a refined and elegant presentation.
We were escorted through a 50-foot-long walkway, the “Junoon Walk,” with a reflecting pool out of which rises an imposing sequence of eight-foot tall sculptures, bearing the tree of life motif.
The walkway serves as a divider between two dining rooms, a private room and the main dining room. We sat in the main dining room—spacious, elegant, and cozy with a clear view of the open kitchen. The place enchants with its subdued lights and warm colors.
Mentally, I go through the entire place to find a just way of presenting this place to you. After all, I did come here for that purpose. The sounds and tones of the setting and the food still echo like the perfect musical notes. The guests speak for that too, calm and cosmopolitan at tables set apart to allow for privacy and civilized conversations under subdued lights while servers emerge, eager to please and explain as needed.
One would get a sense of freedom where the past and the present create wonders. Chef Vikas Khanna, one of India’s leading culinary lights and cookbook author, plays the role of a composer and a maestro who reinterprets and creates compelling dishes.
While drawing on any of the five most celebrated techniques of Indian cooking: handi (pot cooking); sigri (open fire pit); Pathar (stone); Tawa (griddle) and Tandoor (clay oven), each dish resonates like a unique musical scale system with various dynamics and memorable melodies that echo in your mind. Some are quiet, silent even, others bold; in the end they all emphasize the finale—the perfect dish.
Khanna is able to transform an ordinary ingredient to an object of contemplation. Here in New York City, so far away from his native land, India, he is at home.
It is all about freedom—freedom of expression—and New York is where he can create, Khanna told me.
And what can I say after tasting his food, which made me love the spirit of Indian cuisine even more? I nearly fainted when the Lamb Pasanda from the tasting menu arrived. This delicious composition and elegant presentation of the slow-cooked, shredded braised lamb was beautifully displayed over a layer of crushed cashews and surrounded by a nutty, creamy korma with apricot gelee and masala glass.
Perhaps its explosive flavors swayed the genes in my memory. The method and combination of spices kept me guessing to the point of madness.
While I was still under this magical spell, the Duck Lollipop arrived. Khanna is able to construct, articulate, and elaborate this duck using spices and techniques that make for dizzying flavors.
From the vegetarian tasting menu, the Tandoori Shiitakes with Achari shiitake mushrooms and red bell pepper chutney is a clever combination with a lovely taste. They looked like flower petals sitting atop a garden of vegetables with a beautiful and distinct aroma.
Keeping with the same tempo, the shiso pakora, stuffed shiso leaf dumplings, arugula, tamarind, and cilantro reflects everything Khanna does—with passion and with respect to the ingredients.
I must warn you though the vegetarian tasting is designed for the traditional Indian with lots of onions that can be overwhelming for a Western palate but natural to the Indian. … Each of the tasting menus can either be five- or six-course ($85-$100, non-vegetarian; $75-$85, vegetarian) with wine pairings that harmonize with the spices and the complexities of each dish.
The cocktail program by India’s best bartender of 2011 embraces the flavors of Junoon’s menu by incorporating some of the kitchen’s ingredients to effect a culinary continuity such as the Tandoori Tequila or the Caraway Cooler or my Sparkling Saffron cocktail ($13) which made my guests immensely happy.
Let me not digress from the dishes that still echo in my mind. The Arctic char, as if etched into the plate, sat on a bed of saffron baby fennel, rhubarb chutney, and Meyer lemon purée. Single-handedly it convinces that Khanna’s creation is about liberty and freedom of expression, in a city that is open to the sophisticated culinary maturity that I tasted all throughout the dish.
Pastry chef Jenny Lee complements the savory fare with her unique take on Indian desserts, combining the old and the new, and authentic ingredients with contemporary techniques. The Passionfruit Semifreddo and the Coconut Rice Pudding with bruléed bananas, dates, and rum glaze that one no longer knows whether one is hearing colors, seeing sounds, or touching ideas.
In my mind I am still continuing to revise my entire perception of this fabulous experience and cuisine. Indeed this is a place where I would gladly tarry.
Junoon is opening a second location in Dubai’s Shangri-la Hotel later this year.
27 W. 24th St.
Monday–Friday noon–3 p.m.
Sunday through Thursday 6 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 6 p.m.–11 p.m.