When it comes to fine, authentic Indian cuisine, the City is finally catching up to London. The subcontinent is well represented at a variety of venues, from opulent upper-caste showplaces like Dévi and Junoon to the Vendy Award–winning Biryani Cart, a treasured street-food vendor in Midtown. Vegetarians adore Curry Hill's Bhojan, which focuses on India's Gujarat and Punjab regions. Tulsi, a modern establishment in Midtown East, is more a reflection of Jaipur-born chef Hemant Mathur than any particular province. He veers off the traditional path with creations like pistachio chicken and wild boar chops with apple chutney. The hospitable Banjara has long anchored the East Village's Curry Row, but there's a new kid on the block you should check out. Read on and say "namaste" to the five restaurants we've chosen to highlight, from glamorous to humble, new to decades old, mildly seasoned to thrillingly spicy.
108 Lexington Ave., 212-679-1284, Murray Hill, Manhattan
Dhaba is designed like a chic bazaar, lined with dayglow rolls of silk fabric, its shelves stocked with jars of Indian spices. Tables are filled with young, stylish Indian professionals and discerning Westerners who recognize it's a cut above the rest on this stretch of Murray Hill dubbed Curry Hill. Cashews fired up with chiles, onions, black pepper and lime are a stimulating way to begin the feast. Goa fish curry with tamarind and coconut is sublime. And it's hard to think of a better chicken tikka masala. British expats will enjoy the "London Calling" specialties, such as lamb balti and chicken korma. At lunch, the $10.95 buffet ($12.95 on Sundays) is brilliant, offering an array of flavor-packed proteins, starches and vegetables. The space is tight, so you may have to suck it in if you go back for thirds.
Ganesh Temple Canteen
143-09 Holly Ave., 718-460-8493, Flushing, Queens
The Hindu god Ganesh—the one with the elephant head—is the remover of obstacles. Invoke his spirit when journeying to Ganesh Temple Canteen, located in the basement of a Hindu temple complex in a residential part of Flushing several blocks—and worlds away—from neighboring Chinatown. Look for the stairway on Holly Avenue, not the temple's entrance on Bowne Street. The canteen has typical church-annex furnishings: communal tables, dropped ceiling, flyers on bulletin boards advertising upcoming classes. It is open to all every day, no spiritual affiliation or shoe-removing required. Adventurous chowhounds will find tasty and fiery vegetarian fare, albeit served on Styrofoam. Ordering is done fast food–style at the counter, and it's remarkably cheap. Masala dosa, about as big as a scuba fin, is stuffed with seasoned potatoes and served with thick coconut chutney and a bowl of vegetable-laden dal. Samosas are also massive.
37-47 74th St., 718-672-1232, Jackson Heights, Queens
The granddaddy of the Indian lunch buffet, Jackson Diner has for decades been one of Jackson Heights' primary attractions. The soaring space is like an indoor playground, with exposed ducts and pipes and a late-'50s idea of futuristic decor. On each table is a big pink plastic pitcher of water, but if you want something stronger, hail down a waiter and get a Taj Mahal. The steam tables are stocked with charred chicken tandoori, slightly sweet chicken chili, tender goat curry on the bone, piles of naan, spinach, chickpeas and dal, plus a vat of rice pudding. There's also a man making golden dosas on a griddle, surrounded by people holding out their plates in supplication. The buffet is open seven days a week from 11:30am to 4pm; it costs $9.95 on weekdays and $10.95 on weekends. At dinner, order from an extensive menu of mildly spiced Indian classics. A smaller branch of Jackson Diner opened in late 2010 in Greenwich Village.
318 E. 6th St., 212-777-7729, East Village, Manhattan
Why isn't a charred, puffy disk of naan as celebrated as Neapolitan pizza crust? If the specimen is from Malai Marke, it should be. Fresh out of the tandoor oven, the warm bread is stretchy, chewy and addictive, the ideal vehicle to scoop up black lentil dal or hunks of chicken cooked with roasted coconut, peanuts and poppy seeds. This is the newest, most stylish Indian restaurant to arrive on Curry Row (East 6th Street), a passageway long known for cheap and cheerful curry joints. The menu here goes beyond the standard, boasting lamb with creamy almond sauce and spicy fish with hot and sour tamarind curry. Acclaimed restaurateur Shiva Natarajan(Chola, Dhaba, Bhojan) is behind it. It's not costly, but keep in mind the food is deeply discounted at lunch, with under-$10 meals that include dal, cabbage, rice and bread.
41-43 E. 22nd St., 212-674-7400, Flatiron District, Manhattan
99 Hudson St., 212-775-9000, TriBeCa, Manhattan
The original Tamarind opened in the Flatiron District in 2001. It's a sophisticated gem that's not just a great Indian restaurant but a great restaurant, period. Snippet overheard, spoken by a regular: "There are restaurants that spike and others that stay steady. This is one of those places." Traditional trappings—portraits of Ganesh; elaborately carved woodwork; dark, vibrant fabrics—are nowhere in evidence. The extensive space is done in pale, muted colors, the upscale clientele inclined toward cocktails and wine, not beer. She-crab soup sounds more South Carolina than subcontinent, but ginger and saffron keep it within the realm. It's a marvel—intricate, spicy, lightly creamy and redolent of fresh herbs. Even those most skittish of Indian food will be won over by Kerala fish curry and grilled scallops with coconut-mint sauce. Owner Avtar Walia expanded the brand in 2010 with Tamarind Tribeca, an even grander, bi-level venue. The menu has different offerings but similarly exotic, thrilling spices—and likewise caters to well-dressed types who've more feasibly gone to India for business than to look within at an ashram.