Chef Chintan Pandya and his business partner Roni Mazumdar, who already run the stellar Adda in Long Island City, and the equally excellent Rahi in the West Village, have given us another huge “unapologetically Indian” winner. The place is called Dhamaka, it’s located on Delancey within the Essex Street Market, and based on an extraordinary feast I recently enjoyed there, it can instantly be counted as one of NYC’s great restaurants.
Dhamaka is chef Pandya’s loving exploration of provincial Indian cuisine, what he calls “village food,” with a lineup of simple-looking but explosively flavored dishes that, even in India itself, rarely find their way onto restaurant menus. As Mazumdar told me the other night “we get Indians in here who have to Google some of these things because they’ve never heard of them.”
To take just one example, Pandya’s Doh Khleh, a drinking snack made from pig snout and pig head that’s popular in the remote state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. Mazumdar himself admitted that when he first tried it he thought, “Wait, this is Indian food?” It’s a glorious dish, one of several must-orders on the menu, the mound of meat chunks impossibly tender—the fat almost melts in your mouth—and amped up with lemon, onion, ginger, and fiery little chilis. I can’t wait to eat this again.
Other superb starters here include Beguni, from Mazumdar’s hometown in East India, a pile of two-bite nuggets of eggplant that have been marinated in ginger, garlic, and turmeric, twice battered, fried, and served with kasundi, a mustardy dipping sauce that’s as sinus-clearing as a big hit of wasabi. The Paplet Fry, one of Pandya’s personal favorite bar snacks from his days in Mumbai, is a whole fish, battered and fried to a crisp, that you tear apart with your hands and dip in green chutney. Messy as hell and totally delicious.
Definitely get the Gurda Kapoora, a wonderfully funky street food stew made of goat testicles and kidney in a thick, terrifically spicy red sauce that you spoon on top of a couple of fluffy, buttery rolls known as pao. There are a half dozen “grills” available, which arrive in a cute little drum, and though the Kashmirian twice-grilled Tabak Maaz (or lamb ribs) were fantastic, as were the sweet and garlicky Lasooni Prawns, and the cedar-wrapped Goat Belly Seekh, my surprise favorite in this section was the Bharela Marcha — a trio of lovely little roasted red peppers stuffed with peanuts and a knockout coriander-infused paste. They’re intensely sweet, spicy, and earthy.
Larger dishes are all served in the pots in which they were cooked, and the three I ate were spectacular. There’s only a limited number of Champaran Meat available each night, so if it’s still available when you sit down, make sure you pounce. Based on a dish from Bihar, Pandya makes his Champaran with mutton from Arizona (you can’t get good mutton anywhere on the East Coast, apparently), marinated for 36 hours before baking in a clay pot, and includes an entire head of garlic which your server will smash up for you after the big reveal.
The Murgh Kofta, starring heavily seasoned minced chicken, arrives looking like a massive meatball in a pool of sauce, and then your server cuts the thing in half and inside is a whole egg (so… which came first?). And though I’m running out of superlatives at this point, it’s important that you understand just how good Pandya’s Pressure Cooker Pulao is, the hacked-up, bone-in bird cooked to perfection, the Basmati rice redolent with garam masala. Both of these pack a lot of heat (as does most of Pandya’s cooking), so it’s a good idea to get some Chapati flatbread and maybe a bowl of cooling Raita to go with.
Pandya and Mazumdar started their planning for Dhamaka in pre-COVID times, and were actually ready to go last fall, but decided not to push it, and wait and see what the season would bring. When December rolled around, the mandated shutdown of indoor dining again delayed them more (there’s no takeout or delivery here; Pandya feels strongly that these dishes should be eaten right away).
But now Dhamaka is finally up and running and man, was it worth the wait. The interior is stunning, the outdoor patio should be ready by this weekend (the luxury residential building above the restaurant finally approved the sidewalk seating), the beer and cocktails are flowing, and the music is blasting wall-to-wall Indian pop bangers, Pandya’s preferred soundtrack while he’s cooking. It feels FUN in here, like a party I’m actually delighted to be attending, which is a sensation I haven’t had in way too long. Get there soon though; this place is going to a tough table once word gets out and the city comes back to life.
Dhamaka is located at 119 Delancey Street, between Essex and Norfolk Streets, and is currently open on Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (212-204-8616; dhamaka.nyc)