Chef Chintan Pandya is having a blast doing all the things he once thought he could never do at a restaurant. Dhamaka, the sensational hot spot that Pandya and Roni Mazumdar opened at Essex Market on New York’s Lower East Side in February, serves food from the “forgotten side of India.”
There are regional dishes Pandya discovered when he was working and traveling around India. There are uncompromising specialties from homes, street corners, alleyways and the countryside. Pandya remembers taking notes about some of these dishes years ago, but at the time, he couldn’t imagine a scenario where he would cook them professionally.
“These recipes are not meant for a restaurant setting,” he says. “I genuinely never knew what I would use this for.”
“People have matured,” says Pandya, who’s cooking many delicious dishes that seem purposefully unphotogenic in this age of Instagram. “Maybe this food wouldn’t have done well five years back, but this is what people are looking for now. People actually want that real food. People want that real experience.”
The zenith of the Dhamaka experience is the coveted Rajasthani khargosh, a $190 whole rabbit that can be extremely difficult to reserve. You have to pre-order it at least 48 hours in advance, and Dhamaka only serves one per night. Many guests order it weeks before their visit. In his rapturous New York Times review of Dhamaka, Pete Wells admitted that he twice tried and failed to secure the rabbit. New York Magazine’s Adam Platt also wrote a glowing review of Dhamaka without eating the bunny in question.
These critics missed out on something spectacular. Each rabbit spends two days soaking up the flavors of a yogurt-based marinade with red chile powder, garlic paste, ginger, cloves and a secret spice blend. While this is happening, Pandya soaks a clay pot in water overnight. After draining the pot and adding a bed of sliced potatoes, Pandya puts the rabbit inside with fresh sliced ginger, green chiles, cilantro, golden fried onions and some stock and flavored oil. He then cooks the rabbit for five-and-a-half to six hours.
When the clay pot is carefully opened at your table, steam and an intoxicating aroma waft out. And then you break up the rabbit with tongs. (One of the first questions at our table is, “Who wants the head?”) This is an intensely flavorful and fragrant curry. The marinade and the slow cooking result in meat that’s spicy, smoky and fall-off-the-bone tender. The mild white meat becomes one with the ginger, garlic, chiles and everything else.
The rabbit, which comes with potatoes, bread, rice and lentils, is an unforgettable family-style feast and probably the most significant large-format dish in New York since David Chang’s bo ssam. It’s also a dish with a humble backstory.
“This, specifically, was a hunting dish,” Pandya says. “People would go hunting and cook whatever they hunted.”
Pandya has transformed it into a baller New York experience; a bucket-list dish. But he wants to make something clear: “This dish is meant for people who enjoy eating.” He wants customers to order the rabbit for the right reasons. He understands that some guests are intrigued by it because it’s expensive and hard to get. He stresses that the price and limited availability are due to the labor involved and the size of his small kitchen.
“The reason we do one is also because we want to control the quality,” Pandya says. “We want the people who are ordering it to get the perfect experience. This is an experience that you should savor for some time. It’s not a dish where you go to a restaurant and you order, eat and leave.”
Pandya mentions a good friend and loyal customer, who is vegetarian and wanted to order the rabbit for his girlfriend’s birthday. Pandya declined to offer him the rabbit. Again, he wants people who order it to enjoy it.
At Dhamaka, servers wear shirts that say “Unapologetic Indian,” and Pandya is cooking with pure confidence. He’s fortified by the success he’s had serving goat brains at Adda in Long Island City, so he’s cooking goat testicles and kidneys at Dhamaka. This dish, which comes with a thick sauce and rolls for dipping, is limited to six or seven orders a night. Pandya could theoretically sell a lot more than that, but there are a limited amount of testicles and kidneys in New York.
“We literally go from butcher shop to butcher shop to butcher shop,” he says.
Pandya also has Uber drivers look for this prized offal when they’re driving around Queens and see a butcher shop. Dhamaka has clearly disrupted the market for goat testicles and kidneys.
Dhamaka also serves a pressure-cooked pig head’s salad, which is wonderful meat, fat and collagen with lime, cilantro, onion and ginger. It’s a resolutely Indian dish that might remind you of Filipino sisig or Thai larb or Mexican street tacos, depending on your reference point. So much of the food at Dhamaka knocks you sideways, whether you’ve eaten a lot of Indian food or not. It’s like an especially vivid kaleidoscope or a new collection of Farrow & Ball wallpaper. You see different shades of your favorite colors.
It’s fitting that Dhamaka is on the Lower East Side, with its storied rock clubs and music venues. You could say that Dhamaka’s food is punk rock, but noise rock is more accurate. Going to Dhamaka results in a sensory overload not unlike being at a Sonic Youth concert, where cacophony battles harmony and somehow they both win.
In the end, moments like this only matter if the crowd gets it. At Dhamaka, the guests do. The word dhamaka means “blast”, like an explosion. But at Dhamaka, “blast” can also refer to the time everyone is having. The brightly colored dining room, big patio and soundtrack with Bollywood songs help set the tone at this festive restaurant. But Pandya’s fearless cooking is the main attraction, of course.
Pandya has had Indian customers tell him Dhamaka is the only restaurant that reminds them of the food they grew up eating. He’s also had Indian customers tell him they’re proud to be in a restaurant where so many non-Indians are enjoying this food.
I look around the dining room, at a diverse mix of young people who look like they’re about to go to the club. I see slightly older scenesters on dates. There are big tables with families and parents with infants. Chef Hari Nayak of Sona, Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ new Indian restaurant in Flatiron, is having dinner. (Dhamaka has become a chef’s hangout that’s been visited by Wildair’s Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra, Lilia’s Missy Robbins, Empellón’s Alex Stupak, La Vara’s Alex Raij and many others.) There are many groups of stylish South Asians, including one that unabashedly gets up to gawk when our rabbit arrives.
Pandya is working the line in his cramped kitchen on this night, but he takes time to walk out and greet guests and soak up the energy. It must be great for him to experience this every evening. He’s a chef with a clear message: I am going harder and fiercer than I have before. You will taste the intensity. I hope you feel the love.
Dhamaka’s audience is receptive. Tables are covered with food, and guests are smiling and gasping while ripping bread and dipping it into innard-laden sauces. Even if they don’t say a word to Pandya, their reply to him is self-evident, too: Yeah, my man, we see you. We feel you. This is why we are here. Bring it. Bring us everything you’ve got.
Learn more about Robb Report’s Culinary Masters event taking place in San Diego on September 25-27 here.