Wow, they must have sunk a fortune into this place. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when you step foot inside Junoon and find yourself standing in front of a tranquil reflecting pool. This new Indian restaurant, located on the outskirts of Madison Square Park, literally looks like a palace. The bar room alone is bigger than most restaurants, ornamented with antique teak swings, glossy marble floors and high ceilings. While the cocktails at ethnic restaurants tend to be gimmicky, these are both elegant and creative — a martini with a splash of vermouth and garam masala or a beautifully balanced “Agave Thyme” cocktail with rum and a fresh sprig of thyme. A long walkway leading to the dining room is trimmed with 200-year old arched gates and hand-carved sculptures from India. There’s a glassed-in spice room just downstairs where you can watch chefs ground spice blends. And how many restaurants have you been to with a meditation room for employees? You can’t help but feel like you’re dining in a museum, except for the Indian music playing in the background and bewitching aromas wafting from the open kitchen in the main dining room.
Junoon is a looker. It’s also a very big gamble. Sure, it seem small (or at least smaller) compared to neighboring Eataly (which is right across the street), but it’s lofty and so is the menu. Truth be told, you can’t help but worry for them and pray the food’s worth the high price tag. While many of the flavors and spices are from traditional Indian palette, the cooking is modern and refined. It’s also phenomenal. The chef, Vikas Khanna, cooked at Salaam Bombay before taking over Junoon’s kitchen. The menu features regional Indian dishes, using classic techniques, which include the tandoor oven, hot stones, cast iron, fire pit, and curry cooking. The result is bubbly, beautifully charred naan, housemade paneer spiced with garam masala (ground in-house) with cashew nuts and cream, and monkfish tikka with yogurt, chiles and mustard seed.
One of my favorite dishes on the menu was the lobster tandoori, an wondrously moist lobster tail, served in its shell, and spiced with a fragrant blend of cumin, cayenne and lemon. The crowning touch is a fennel glaze, which lends the lobster meat a sweet, aromatic flavor that plants itself firmly in your memory for days. And the piri-piri shrimp is nearly as delicious. The shrimp are bathed in a hot chile sauce, flavored with parsley, lemon, garlic and cilantro, which on its own is undeniably spicy, but here is tempered by a delicately sweet, meyer lemon vinaigrette that they should sell by the bottle. The flavors are all clean and sharp, and yet, beautifully balanced by each other.
The cooking is slightly reminiscent of Floyd Cardoz’ work at the newly and sadly shuttered Tabla. But while Cardoz’ cooking is whimsical and often interpretative Indian food, Khannas seems more rooted in tradition with a focus on simplicity. If you’re craving family-style portions with lots of gravy, you won’t find it at Junoon. Instead, you get artfully plated lamb chops, spiced with pepper, green cardamom and ginger, a perfectly molded tower of mango chutney, or homemade lamb sausage with a snappy casing and moist, finely spiced interior. There’s paneer drizzled with mint sauce, garam masala-crusted cauliflower and an outstanding rendition of saag, the Indian answer to creamed spinach, except this version is mixed with cauliflower, coriander, fenugreek and gobs of garlic. Oh, and the table agreed that the five-lentil daal was the best daal we’d ever had — creamy and luxurious, and yet earthy and comforting.
Really, my only complaint was the halibut in a coconut curry, which was a tad overcooked, and the “seasonal chutneys,” a trio of sesame, tamarind… and tomato? Since when are tomatoes in season in December? The sweet & sour tamarind and nutty sesame with fresh baked paratha easily made up for the tomato chutney.
For dessert, we shared shared the date pudding cake (pictured right), a moist, yet surprisingly light cake with a tart cranberry reduction and a luscious orange buttermilk ice cream with bright citrus undertones.
So maybe Junoon wasn’t such a big gamble. After all, every great chef needs a proper stage. With its rising star chef, Vikas Khannas, this just may just be the next best Indian restaurant.
Address: 27 West 24th St., btwn 6th & Broadway