The state of Indian food in New York is a divided one. There’s plenty to choose from, sure, but options are situated at two ends of the spectrum: Cultish, rickety dosa carts, home-cooked Punjabi counters and tandoori diners in far-flung pockets like Jackson Heights occupy one end; modern, Michelin-level fine-dining rooms—your Junoons, your Tamarinds—gloss up the other.
Babu Ji, a south Melbourne import from husband-and-wife team Jessi and Jennifer Singh (from Chandigarh and New York City, respectively), falls comfortably in the middle. There’s a tasting menu, but it’s only $50 per person; a thoughtful wine list but also a fend-for-yourself beer fridge. Silver-haired dadimas are parked on sleek black banquettes next to ball-capped millennials as taken with ’gramming the meal as eating it.
And those picturesque plates are similarly middlebrow— slow-cooked lamb folded into a Kashimiri-style rogan josh ($20), raw Long Island scallops dropped into turmeric-yellow coconut curry ($25)—heartily accessible but more pristinely garnished than your hole-in-the-wall curry house.
The opening “from the streets” section features papadi chaat (India’s answer to nachos; $14), with mini papadum crisps rendered Mediterranean-breezy courtesy of tender chickpeas, tart pomegranate seeds and tangy yogurt chutney; and yogurt kebabs ($14), crispy hung-curd croquettes that are belly-bombing dense but have a nice rolling spice thanks to a pool of beetroot ginger sauce.
Small brass crocks of sweet, free-range butter chicken ($24) and fresh pomegranate kofta in cashew-shallot curry ($16) are ushered out next with puffs of garlicky naan and bowls of cumin-laced basmati rice in tow, faintly spiced (too timidly for true-blue heat seekers) but satisfyingly creamy enough to make up for the portion and price.
But it’s the superb kulfi (Indian ice cream pop) that sums up Babu Ji’s intentions. The process is laborious—the milk base stirs with cardamom, pistachio and honey for six hours, and the traditional conical molds are shipped in from the motherland—but the effect is infectiously fun, with diners rolling the ice-cold metal casts between their hands before the chewy confections slide out. Babu Ji is polished, but it’s not above playing with food.