What secrets lie beneath the surface of a restaurant menu?
In this latest edition of Eating Between the Lines, we pay a visit to Dhamaka, the latest restaurant from the team behind the widely acclaimed Rahi and Adda restaurants in New York City, from chef and partner Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar.
Read on for a dish-by-dish deep dive into the menu at one of New York’s most exciting newcomers.
1. The Dhamaka Backstory
The origins of Dhamaka started around a kitchen table.
Two years ago, chef Chintan Pandya was at home with his wife, Namrata, lamenting to her how he was struggling with what food to cook at his next restaurant. He was hungry, so quickly, she prepared lunch for them to share: tindora (gourd) with potatoes, vegetables, and roti.
“I ate the first bite, and I thought, this is the kind of comfort food I want to eat every day, honestly. How can I create this? And that’s where the entire idea of the menu came in: How do we go regional, and do these kinds of dishes?”
At Dhamaka, Pandya and owner Roni Mazumdar and their team — many of whom have worked with them for years at Rahi and at Adda — have done just that. The restaurant’s name, which alludes to a “bang” or “explosion,” is exactly what they want you to experience: They want you to have the same sort of lightbulb moment Pandya had at his kitchen table when they embarked on opening the restaurant.
For Mazumdar, “dhamaka” is like “the crackling of very fresh spices when it hits the pot and some of the peppercorns burst out.” It celebrates a central principle of Indian cuisine: the balance of opposing flavors. “In European cuisine, if you have a softer fish, you want a complementary softer sauce to go with it,” he says.
“But in India, if you have a softer fish, you want to give it a punch. We’re just honoring that punch here — that punch is dhamaka.”
The pandemic delayed Dhamaka’s opening date, originally slated for early 2020. But finally, a year later, the full-service restaurant occupying a prime corner inside the Essex Market opened on February 14, the same day that indoor dining returned to New York City.
Indeed, you won’t find butter chicken, naan, or saag paneer on the menu at Dhamaka, like you will at its sister restaurants, Long Island City’s Adda or the West Village’s Rahi. Whereas Rahi celebrates modern Indian cuisine and Adda immerses you in homestyle Indian cooking, Dhamaka is all about diving headfirst into the incredible diversity that exists in Indian cuisine — rustic, regional specialties you might eat from the streets or inside family homes.
“It feels like there is this moment for Indian food to really shine — and I don’t know if we are the right or wrong people to put that spotlight on it — but what I do know is that one of the ways to do that is to focus on this part of India that’s being so quickly forgotten,” Mazumdar says. “It’s about honoring our past and our culture.”
Right now, Dhamaka is open for indoor dining and beginning Friday, March 5, it will offer outdoor dining as well.
If you go, front-of-house manager Tsepak “Tina” Dolker has one piece of advice: “Ask for recommendations. You might not be that familiar with the kind of food we’re serving, but there are so many delicious things here, and we’re here to help.”
2. A New Taste of Home
Chef de cuisine Eric Valdez wanted to develop beguni for Mazumdar, who grew up eating this popular Bengali snack in Kolkata. Whereas beguni is traditionally made with the thinnest of eggplant slices (“It’s like there’s an award for whoever can slice the thinnest eggplant for beguni back home in India,” says Mazumdar), Valdez’s version features nugget-sized chunks of spiced eggplant coated in potato starch and semolina and then fried and served with an aioli-style dip.
“I just love eating chicken nuggets, so I thought, maybe this could be a vegetarian version it,” says Valdez. “I kept the flavors very true to the original: You have the mustard oil, ginger, and garlic. The most important thing is the crunch of it, the batter.”
Mazumdar was a bit skeptical when he first saw the dish, but after the first bite, he was sold: “I was like, holy mother, this is something like I’ve never tried before, but it reminds me of all those flavors that I grew up with — I think that’s the magic of it.”
3. The Sleeper Hit
While Pandya was absolutely convinced the beguni would be Dhamaka’s most popular dish out the gate, the real sleeper hit has been the restaurant’s paplet fry, a straightforward preparation of pomfret marinated with turmeric, red chile powder, ginger, garlic paste, salt, and black pepper that’s crusted in rice flour and semolina, and then fried.
On opening night, a young couple ordered not one — but three — orders of the fish for their meal: one as a starter and two as their mains. “I asked the server, ‘Did you punch that in by mistake?’” says Pandya. Later, when he stopped by the table and spoke to the diners, they told him they ordered it because it reminded them of the flaky, succulent fried fish they used to eat in small bars throughout Mumbai, just as Pandya did, too.
“I think it’s the simplicity of the dish that makes it so popular,” says Mazumdar. “Chef and I talk about this all the time: how we might think putting 200 ingredients in a dish makes it what it is. But what excites people most is sometimes the simplicity, how the flavor profile really balances, and to be honest, we were both surprised by how popular the paplet fry was.”
4. Same Same, But Different
While researching and developing recipes for Dhamaka, chef Valdez came across a pork dish from Meghalaya that reminded him distinctly of a beloved dish from the Philippines, where he was born and raised: sisig. “The flavor profile with ginger, cilantro, and onions is very familiar, very Filipino, almost,” he says.
Like sisig, doh khleh is made primarily with the pig’s head, first cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, and then grilled, and arranged into a salad.
Valdez, who first started working with Pandya five years ago in the kitchen at Junoon, says chef Pandya has taught him so much about the similarities between Indian and Filipino cooking, especially the emphasis on layering flavors. “[Chef Pandya] has a lot of knowledge of Indian culture, and he shares it with me, and that helps me understand my own because before this, I never really did deep research into Filipino culture. But now, because I’m researching so much, I see so many of the similarities now.”
5. A Study in Sourcing
You won’t find bheja fry (goat brains) on the menu at Dhamaka like you will at Adda, but you will find another delicacy: gurda kapoora (goat kidneys and testicles), cooked in a preparation that pays homage to a dish that’s often eaten for Ramadan.
If you want to try gurda kapoora at Dhamaka, know that quantities are regulated and limited. “Chintan [Pandya] always jokes that a goat could be as big as it wants to be, but there’s only two testicles, and only one brain,” says Mazumdar.
The popularity of Adda’s bheja fry surprised Mazumdar and Pandya — but it also had the effect of doubling the price of goat brains and making it harder to find in large quantities. Nowadays, though, they have some help in sourcing the goat brains and the goat testicles.
“The Uber drivers, we know them personally,” Pandya says, “So we’ve told them that anytime you’re near those shops, and if you see that meat, just buy it, and we’ll pay you for it and for the taxi.”
6. The Staff Favorite
Ask any member of the staff — including front-of-house manager Dolker, beverage director Yessenia Alverez, and chef de cuisine Valdez — what their favorite dish on the menu is and they’ll tell you, without hesitation, it’s the Champaran meat, a dish made with stewed mutton, garam masala, and a whole bulb of garlic that’s cooked inside of a clay pot and sealed with dough on the top.
“I love this dish so much,” says Dolker. “It’s one of the very first dishes that the chefs begin preparing every morning, since it takes five to six hours for it to cook.” (Pro Tip: If you want to have a taste of the Champaran meat, make sure you place your order ASAP; the dish has been known to sell out.)
The development for this mutton stew alone took nearly four months, including testing nine different clay pots. At first, the recipe was tested with goat, but chef Pandya decided it would be better with mutton, as it was originally made in Champaran, in the Eastern Indian state of Bitar.
“I think the integrity of dish was with mutton and we wanted to do it with mutton, and that’s why we go with the extra step in everything.” That includes sourcing the meat all the way from Chambers Meat Company in Tempe, Ariz.
Pandya wouldn’t divulge all the spices in his garam masala, but his version contains cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, and chile, and he grinds his spices on a nearly daily basis. “Every house has their own version of garam masala,” says Pandya.
7. The Special Ingredient
Baby shark isn’t a common ingredient found in most Indian restaurants in America, but it does happen to be a traditional ingredient used in the macher jhol (fish curry) that hails from the Sunderbans, a part of West Bengal that’s most known for its tiger sanctuary. It’s there, in the Bay of Bengal, where baby sharks are cultivated.
Featuring an ingredient like baby shark, goat testicles, or rabbit isn’t meant to grab headlines, says Mazumdar. “We’re simply saying that we, as Indians, sometimes we don’t even know our own cuisine — we’re so used to chicken or lamb or vegetarian cuisine, that we’ve forgotten about these other ingredients. It’s really to remind ourselves that there’s a part of India that’s being forgotten. How do we hold on to that, and share that with you?”
8. The Show Stopper
While Pandya is quick to describe Dhamaka’s Rajasthani khargosh as a very “simple” preparation, there’s actually plenty of labor involved in producing it, and the many sides that accompany it. It consists of a whole rabbit marinated in red chile powder, turmeric, ginger, garlic paste, and yogurt for an entire day, and then cooked inside a clay pot set on top of an open flame until the meat falls off the bone. Side dishes include dal dhamaka (lentils); hing jeera aloo (potatoes); paratha (flaky, layered flatbread); ghee bhat (slightly sweet butter rice); onions; and fried chiles.
An entire crew needs to be hired for a separate shift to prepare the rabbit in the already compact kitchen. That’s why ordering one requires a 48-hour notice by email, and why it commands a $190 price tag. Cooking the rabbit in this way pays homage to how hunters in Rajasthan traditionally cook their rabbit.
9. All In the Family
The bharela marcha, stuffed peppers with peanuts and fresh coriander, were directly inspired by Pandya’s mother-in-law and, like his wife’s tindora, this dish built the foundation for Dhamaka’s menu concept. He first tasted the peppers on one of his days off, when he went to his in-laws’ house, conveniently located across the street from him, for lunch. The very next day, he asked his mother-in-law how to make the delicious, melt-in-your-mouth peppers, bought up all the ingredients, and then prepared it for Mazumdar and Valdez to taste in the kitchen.
“The first thing I’ll say,” Pandya notes, “is that her version is better.” He says his mother-in-law has yet to taste his version, but he hopes she will soon. His features slightly different spice proportions and, he adds, has “a bit more bite.”
10. Matters of Presentation
Whenever you order the bharela marcha, goat belly seekh, or any of the grill items, they’ll arrive at your table in their own mini grill, or sigdi, fashioned especially for Dhamaka out of repurposed cans.
“You could buy a smoker or a grill, but [chef] refuses to let me do that for him,” Mazumdar says. “We actually work with a local metalworker to make these, because this is the kind of stuff you actually see in India.”
For Pandya, these grills represent a central theme of the restaurant, and of Indian cooking itself: jugaad, the idea of making things work with what you have. And that’s especially true of how the goat belly seekh dish came to be.
Family meal, the one part of the day where the entire staff gets together to eat a meal, usually before dinner service, inspired the creation of Dhamaka’s goat belly seekh. “I had all this goat belly just lying in the freezer for a month, so I decided to do something with it,” says Valdez. So, he decided to take the leftover meat and grind it with spices to make a kebab for family meal at Rahi.
For Dhamaka, Valdez added plenty of green chile, ginger, garlic, coriander seeds, and cilantro to the goat belly meat before mincing it and shaping it into a kebab that’s then wrapped in cedar wood to give it a smoky flavor.
11. The Right Amount of Pressure
Pandya went through approximately 15 different steel pressure cookers before settling on the right one to use for his chicken masala pulao — a blend of bone-in chicken, Basmati rice, and cinnamon. The same pressure cooker that’s used to cook the pulao is placed on your table when you order that dish. Each pulao is made to order and, from start to finish, the cooking process takes about 15 minutes.
The inspiration to serve the pulao in the pressure cooker, he says, came from memories of eating his mother’s pulao and talking to his wife about how she ate pulao at home in India, too. “Why doesn’t anybody make it in a pressure cooker over here?” he wondered.
12. The Drink Pairings
Beverage director Yessenia Alverez, whom you might also see at Rahi, built Dhamaka’s entire fruit-forward beverage program as a complement to the food, often using the same ingredients the kitchen keeps in stock. One example is the tangy paan leaves you’ll find in the Paan E Bahar, a cooling, comforting cocktail made with gin and ginger that pairs so well with so many dishes.
Alverez’s personal favorite cocktail, however, is the Joshila, which combines passionfruit and mezcal. And if she had to pick another favorite, it’d be the Gulaabo, made with Tokyo Nights Gin, lemon, rosewater, dragon fruit syrup, and aquafaba (an alternative to egg whites that’s made with chickpeas).
Alverez promises she’ll be changing the cocktail menu seasonally, so, she advises, “Don’t be afraid to try some of the drinks before they’re gone.”
Dhamaka is open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays at Essex Market for indoor and outdoor dining.