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High Junoon

An opulent Indian spot recalls the boom days of New York dining.

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Junoon  

If you don’t believe that the parched postrecession restaurant landscape is slowly returning to the kind of lush boom-era opulence that New Yorkers are used to, then I suggest you book a table at the new Indian dining palace in the Flatiron district called Junoon. The restaurant’s façade is covered in hand-­chiseled limestone, like the exterior of a Mughal fort. Inside, the barn-size dining room is appointed with giant rose-colored statues cut from Indian sandstone, and limpid spa-style pools with candles and lotus blossoms floating in them. In the downstairs Spice Room, you can view the exotic spices and herbs (dried ginger, fenugreek leaves, strings of red saffron, and so on) that go into the house-ground curries, and the semi-­private dining room upstairs is decorated, according to my loquacious waiter, with antique wooden arches carved centuries ago for a raja’s palace in Jaipur.

“French service, in the family, ­Indian style,” is how our waiter (who was French) described the menu at Junoon (the name means “passion” in Hindi), which is divided not just between appetizers and entrées but also by method of Indian cookery. The most familiar of these, of course, are tandoor (clay oven) and handi (curry), although our early appetizers included two dainty scallops sizzled in the tawa (cast-iron) style, and tubes of tasty though curiously tepid minced-lamb kebabs, which tasted like they’d been grilled in a fire pit (sigri) an hour or so earlier. ­Neither of these dishes was as satisfying as the Goan shrimp, however (small shrimp in a rich, properly fiery piri-piri sauce), or the Tree of Life cauliflower (crisp-fried with a garam masala crust), or the tiny, delicate tandoori-style adraki bater, a whole quartered quail softened in ginger and lime juice and piled over slices of freshly peeled orange.

The chefs at Junoon have worked at many upmarket Indian kitchens around town (Salaam Bombay, Dévi, Bay Leaf), and they’re adept at enlivening the usual curries and tandooris with intricate combinations of flavor and spice. There is no traditional tandoori chicken on the menu, but you can get yogurt-softened hunks of grilled monkfish (spiced with serrano chiles), and tender, well-charred lamb chops caked with ginger and green cardamom. The tepid lobster tandoori I sampled wasn’t worth its extravagant sticker price (one tail for $33), but the assembled curry hounds at my table gave thumbs up to the numerous handi preparations, which included chicken Malvan (with green chiles and cilantro), a smooth version of shrimp ghassi (with roasted coconut), and the rich, tomato-based goat matke wala, which was spooned onto our plates from a shiny copper pot.

Sometimes the quality of the cooking justifies the elaborate pomp and ceremony at this slightly overpompous restaurant, and sometimes it does not. But the numerous housebaked breads are excellent, and so is the raita, which the kitchen folds with pomegranate seeds and shreds of fresh mint. If you don’t feel like dropping $1,000 for a bottle of Cristal rosé Champagne, there’s an impressive variety of only slightly less grand wines to choose from, courtesy of the former Gotham Bar and Grill sommelier Scott Carney. The fussy, Continental-inflected desserts include a passion-fruit bombe made with frozen yogurt, excellent condensed-milk kulfi, and a warm little wheel of bread pudding flavored with dates. Most satisfying (and emblematic) of all, however, is that old Indian-restaurant favorite lassi, which comes in two flavors (mango and pomegranate) and is served at this establishment in a Champagne flute.

April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s latest venture also seems to have been designed, at least on the surface, with a brassy, optimistic vision of the future in mind. Like their original seafood restaurant (the first John Dory was shuttered after a brief run in Chelsea), the new John Dory Oyster Bar is decorated with seashell sconces, laminated game fish, and bubbling fish tanks filled with brightly colored coral. Unlike the old restaurant, however, this one occupies a prime, even glittering piece of real estate, off the lobby of the Ace Hotel at the inter­section of Broadway and 29th Street. The triple-height space is encased mostly in windows, like the exterior of a department store, and instead of a single bar there are now two, one designed for consuming oysters and the other (as the new name indicates) for consuming cocktails.

When it comes to profits, however, cocktails trump oysters every time, and you don’t have to spend long jostling for space in this darkened, perpetually mobbed room to know what the priorities are here. There are fifteen signature drinks available (courtesy of the downtown mixologist Sasha Petraske), but Bloomfield’s abbreviated, tapas-style menu is a shadow of its former self. There are no grilled-fish entrées (crudi rule the day), no rib-sticking stews (although Bloomfield’s excellent oyster pan roast has survived), and no sign of the old restaurant’s ethereal version of fish and chips. If you have to make a meal, focus on the limited but excellent oyster selection and ye olde specialties like anchovy toast, kedgeree (garnished with lime and crispy red onions), and, to finish, that ageless comfort food the Eccles cake, served, in classic gentleman’s style, with a slab of gently melting Stilton cheese.


Junoon
Address: 27 W. 24th St., nr. Broadway: 212-490-2100
Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $15; entrées, $16 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Adraki bater (quail), chicken Malvan or tandoori lamb chops, bread basket, date bread pudding.
Note: The restaurant offers a three-course, $25 prix fixe lunch.
Scratchpad: Three stars for ambition and the varied menu, minus one star for the stilted surroundings.


John Dory Oyster Bar
Address: 1196 Broadway, at 29th St.: 212-792-9000
Hours: Lunch noon to 4 p.m. Raw bar 4 to 5 p.m. Dinner 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Raw bar and snacks, $2 to $35; small plates, $4 to $17.
Ideal Meal: Oysters or scallops crudo, oyster pan roast, Eccles cake.
Note: The best time to visit is at lunch, when the crowds are thinner and the menu includes Bloomfield’s majestic roasted-pork-and-tuna-mayo sandwich.
Scratchpad: Half a star for the spotty, semi-satisfying menu, and another half for the drinks.


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