In Hindi, junoon means “passion,” and after spending some time chatting with the Michelin-starred New York restaurant’s young chef, Akshay Bhardwaj, it’s clear that the term is very apropos. In Junoon’s temperature-controlled spice room, where huge containers of spices, herbs, and blends – black cardamom, amchoor powder, curry leaf – await being incorporated into his dishes, Ashkay is like an enthusiastic child showing off his Lego collection, excitedly describing each spice’s sourcing, flavor profiles, and uses. In Junoon’s kitchen, Ashkay and his team use a deft hand when working them into recipes, and the end result, as a recent visit at the invitation of the restaurant revealed, makes Junoon unlike any other Indian restaurant in New York.
The restaurant itself is smartly designed, with cream-colored walls, dark wood floors, and gold accents, and the overall vibe is serene. All the better, because you’re going to want to enjoy this food without distraction. There’s a $95 nine-course tasting menu, but we decided to go with a $75 prix-fixe that includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, with lentil dal, basmati rice, naan, raita, and a variety of chutneys on the side. A word of advice: come hungry.
We started with aloo zataar vada, a zataar-infused croquette of purple and white potato served with a creamy slaw of cabbage and brussels sprouts and topped with zataar aioli; and lal mirch ka paneer; rounds of housemade cheese coated in a spicy chile rub and served with confit peppers. Both dishes packed a slightly spicy punch, but the heat was tempered by the slaw and cheese, respectively, and the flavors were delicate and well-balanced.
For entrees, we chose murgh lababdar, tandoor-grilled chicken in a creamy tomato sauce (here it’s given a more authentic name than the usual tikka masala); and shahi lamb shank, a slow-braised shank served in a rich black cumin yogurt curry enlivened with garam masala. The chicken was by all accounts the best tikka masala I’ve ever had; delicately spiced, perfectly cooked, and absolutely addictive. The lamb shank didn’t disappoint, either; it was tender and well-cooked, the curry didn’t distract from the lamb’s flavor, and it was once again delicate and undeniably addictive.
On the side, the yellow dal and creamier red lentil dal had completely different flavor profiles but both could have been entrees in their own right. Rice was light and fluffy, naan and roti were thin and delicate, raita was cooling and rich with the flavor of high-quality fresh yogurt and cucumber, and the three chutneys perfectly complemented everything else. And for dessert, make sure you try the kulfi tasting (four seasonal “ice cream pops” – a whole lot of fun) as well as the rice pudding, which chef Ashkay’s mother makes from scratch according to the family recipe.
Comparing a meal at Junoon to one at your standard Indian restaurant is like comparing a meal at Peter Luger to one at Beefsteak Charlie’s. There’s just no comparison; it’s a truly paradigm-shifting experience for those who aren’t accustomed to this level of cooking, from the spice blending to the deft use of the tandoor oven. There’s a reason why Junoon is the only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in New York, and if you consider yourself a fan of Indian food (and even if you don’t), it’s a very worthy splurge.