In the hands of many cooks, biryani is an intense exploration of the power of basmati rice to absorb multiple spices while letting each one come through clearly. At Dhamaka, the latest Indian restaurant from the chef Chintan Pandya, biryani is a polyphonic riot of flavor.
Black peppercorns and green chiles rip through the rice, through the darkly browned chunks of goat neck on the bone and, finally, through your central nervous system. But even as your eyes start to water, the heat is broken by a blast of fresh mint that arrives like a mojito on a humid summer afternoon.
At his last restaurant, Adda Indian Canteen, Mr. Pandya gave us a goat biryani that takes no prisoners. The one at Dhamaka is a full-scale insurrection. At Adda, he gave us goat brains; at Dhamaka, we get the kidneys and testicles. Clearly, the message is: “You know I’m not fooling around with this, right?”
Dhamaka has been open, inside the Essex Market and outside in a steel-and-fabric tent on the Delancey Street sidewalk, since February. You might well wonder how serious it really is, given that the menu offers a $190 whole rabbit, one a night, stewed according to an old Rajasthani tradition. At least, that’s the story. Twice I tried to order it, two days ahead of time as required, and each time I was told I hadn’t been quick enough to catch the rabbit.
You may have better luck. What you won’t get at Dhamaka, though, is a dull meal. Mr. Pandya has lifted ideas from all over India for the menu, and for the most part he stayed away from the restrained dishes that tend to get described as soothing, delicate or quiet. The sauces yowl with ginger, turmeric, cardamom and other intensifiers. It’s not that the cooking at Dhamaka lacks nuance. You just have to get past a few layers of joyful abandon to find it.
Mr. Pandya learned his craft at a fine-dining hotel restaurant in Mumbai, where he was born, and spent several years as the executive chef of Junoon, in Manhattan, practicing a cosmopolitan style. His cooking took a casual turn with Rahi, his first restaurant as an owner with his business partner, the restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, but the edible flowers tweezed into position suggested he still hadn’t broken free of the hotels.
Then came Adda, and Mr. Pandya dropped the tweezers. He wrote a menu largely made of dishes that he had learned from home cooks in India or eaten with his own family, and didn’t do much to dress them up. Without visual distractions, the cooking had to get your attention almost entirely through the intensity of the flavors. And it did.
Dhamaka builds on that model. A number of dishes are cooked and served in clay pots or cast iron, as they would be in Indian homes. Meat and fish is left on the bone. One of the most likable things on the menu is the pulao, cut-up chicken steamed in a pressure cooker with basmati rice at the bottom so it builds a lightly golden crust — about as far from fancy-hotel cooking as you can get.
Getting food on your hands, very much a way of life in India, is actively encouraged at Dhamaka. One night Mr. Mazumdar pulled up alongside my table, having spotted somebody attempting to eat the stuffed peppers known as bharela marcha with a knife and fork. “I’m here to stop a crime in progress,” he said. The sweet miniature peppers are filled through a slit in their sides with chickpea-flour masala and chopped peanuts, leaving the stem in place as a handle.
Dhamaka is trying to shake up New York’s image of Indian food by looking outside the major cities. As Mr. Mazumdar put it, India’s big cities are so populous that their food tends to block the view of what’s going on in smaller towns.
“We thought it was important to represent the villages that don’t get as much attention,” he said. The bharela marcha recipe belongs to Mr. Pandya’s mother-in-law, who grew up in a village in Gujarat. Macher jhol, which means “fish with broth,” appears in Bengali kitchens in seemingly limitless variations; the turmeric-laced one at Dhamaka, cooked with tender hunks of dogfish (“baby shark,” the menu calls it), was dug up far from Kolkata.
Gujarati and Bengali cooking are not exactly unknown quantities in New York, but what about Meghalayan cuisine? The state of Meghalaya sits in India’s northeast, on the far side of Bangladesh, far closer to Bhutan than to New Delhi. Its contribution to the menu is doh khleh, a salad of pig head blasted into tenderness by a pressure cooker, then grilled and dressed with sweet onions, lime juice, coriander leaves and fresh chiles. Many New Yorkers will long remember the wonderful Goan pork dishes Floyd Cardoz used to cook, but this doh khleh is something entirely different; it has more in common with a Burmese salad than with the Portuguese-influenced cookery of Goa.
Dhamaka allows some street food and the like to mingle with the domestic dishes on the menu. From the sidewalks of West Bengal, there are beguni, eggplant fritters that look something like McNuggets and come with a mustard sauce that travels into parts of your head usually seen only by brain surgeons. The bars of Mumbai where Mr. Pandya drank in his student days are the inspiration for paplet fry — whole, small pomfret whose skins have been fused in hot oil to a wildly crunchy semolina shell, brick-red with spices. The best way to eat one is to spoon some coriander chutney over the fish and then pick it up with your fingers, like Gollum, sucking the meat away from the skeleton.
Because Mr. Pandya seems to want every dish to rearrange your senses, a whole meal can be dizzying. I wished that my server had not recommended the Champaran meat, a powerfully chile-laden mutton curry, alongside the goat biryani; the flavors were too similar, and the combined heat of the two dishes was formidable. Another main course would have made a better table-mate, such as the excellent housemade paneer simmered in cashew cream with fresh fenugreek greens, or the fluffy chicken kofta wrapped around a whole egg.
On the other hand, the mutton is true mutton, dense and strong, from Arizona sheep older than three years. (The mutton chop at Keens Steakhouse is undoubtedly large, but it isn’t old enough to be called mutton anywhere but Keens.) So I asked for another beer — Dhamaka’s serious exploration of India does not extend to the cocktail list, which randomly pairs tropical fruits with spirits and hopes for the best.
In any case, the cure for chile overdrive is at hand in the form of Dhamaka’s only dessert. Chhena poda, a sort of free-form cheesecake from the state of Odisha, is made from mass-produced Amul cheese and fresh curds that are the first step in making paneer. Baked and served in a small clay dish, chhena poda will soothe you, but not before inflicting a little pain of its own. It comes to the table hot as a burning coal.