Hemant Mathur works some magic at Curry Hill’s Haldi, which he has recently taken over as co-owner. The taste buds marvel, and so do wallets (if they could).
Where else could one order a soul-satisfying $12 to $15 two-course lunch special prepared by a chef with two Michelin stars to his name?
Mathur, the first Indian chef in the United States to be smiled upon by Michelin, worked at acclaimed fine dining spots Devi and, until more recently, Tulsi.
Haldi is the beginning of an adventure for Mathur. There, he focuses on the cuisine of one city: Calcutta.
Mathur has no mammoth menu trying to reflect the 1.3 million square miles that is India. If he sets off a trend among Indian restaurants, it will be a gift to the Indian dining scene in the city.
Mathur won’t be waiting for others though. Haldi is just one of six restaurants he’s taken over as part of the Fine Indian Dining group. Once Haldi is up to his standards, he will move on, one by one, to the others: Chola, Dhaba, Kokum, Malai Marke, and Chote Nawab.
Located in eastern India, Calcutta’s proximity to the sea means an abundance of fish and seafood. The city officially changed the spelling of its name to Kolkata in 2001, but the restaurant retains the old spelling.
Mathur cooks up specialties from the Bengali, Marwari, and Jewish communities who live in Calcutta.
Among the “Bengali Bites,” don’t miss the Luchi Aloo Dum. Baby potatoes are cooked to an impeccable butteriness in a sauce of onion and tomatoes. It is utterly simple in many ways, but the match of potatoes and onion-tomato is perfect. It is served with bread that’s been deep fried to wonderful, delicate, golden puffiness—the vessel to carry potatoes and sauce ($9).
This dish alone signaled to me I would be in for a great meal. Every food lover has his or her own reaction when biting into something delicious. The Luchi Aloo Dum made me want to shed tears of joy. When I managed to look up, I saw my friend, a great lover of Indian food, muttering, “Ridiculous, ridiculous,” his shorthand for being impressed.
Mostly there was silence—the best sign of a meal so enjoyable there’s no room for words.
For a lighter start, there’s the Calcutta street snack Jhal Muri, constructed in a little tower of puffed rice, peanuts, and onions lightly bound by chutney ($6), or delicate Pani Puri, a tiny, hollow deep fried shell into which you can peer at the fillings.
The lingering, dominating memory of it was the accompanying chutney. It had delicate berry notes, but Mathur said it was simply tamarind, to which he adds some dates. I scraped it off the plate as best I could, and entertained fleeting thoughts of licking it off the plate. When I again looked up, I saw my friend also deeply focused on scraping it off the plate.
Mathur also makes Chingri Malai, shrimp in a thick, creamy sauce made with coconut milk that tasted buttery and rich, as if straight from a New England shrimp chowder ($11).
He is a renowned master of the tandoor oven, and is well-known in particular for his lamb chops, encrusted in yogurt, skewered, and plunged into the heat of the tandoor. They are fragrant and make for the best gnawing possible. Don’t leave those bits left on the bone untouched—they are the best part.
A Marwari specialty, Lal Maas is made of Kashmiri chilies and is colored as fiery red as the lava from a volcano ($15). Despite the color, the heat factor is not overpowering, and jolts of fried ginger balance out the goat meat in a tingling, refreshing way.
Another Calcutta specialty is the Fish Paturi ($19), which shows the city’s fondness for mustard seed. Mathur makes a sauce out of yellow mustard seeds, coconut, and chili, and the result is something that you might or might not like. It is, as my friend said, “fish with guts,” served with a sauce that is pungent, bitter, and savory all at once. Even though the bitterness was at times forbidding, the savory element tempers it and kept us taking bites, almost despite ourselves.
It is about as far from the comfortable standard of a dish like Chicken Tikka Masala, and Haldi is not shy about pushing American palates.
In 1994, when Mathur came to New York City (which he considered “the food capital”), he said there were few people who had been to India, and the majority of diners only knew to order tandoori chicken.
In Curry Hill, he points out, there are now “almost 10–12 restaurants per block, and every restaurant is doing well.” He feels people are ready for more.
Mathur is also working on catering, and after Haldi, his next project will be to focus on Chola, a concept where “north meets south.”
Pastry chef Surbhi Sahni prepares desserts worth saving room for. They are nothing like the all-too-often cloyingly sweet Indian confections.
In particular it’s hard to resist her Rum Balls (a specialty of Calcutta also), made with fig and chocolate and covered with a dusting of crushed cashews or almonds.
102 Lexington Ave.
Monday–Sunday noon–3 p.m.
Monday–Saturday 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Sunday: 5 p.m.–10 p.m.