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Junoon – for the passionate foodie

September 23
02:55 2011

NEW YORK: With increasing travel and exposure to world cultures, connoisseurs of food, as those of art, are becoming increasingly savvy towards cuisines from different parts of the world, as also increasingly demanding in their quest for authenticity of cultural nuances.
While it is needless to say that Indian food has long found its indelible spot on the discerning foodie’s gourmet map, it is heartening to see more and more Indian restaurateurs pushing the tawa – figuratively speaking that is – to move away from stock please-all menus to daringly bring traditional fare to the high end tables.
Among those that’s making a flavorful mark in New York City is Junoon, that offers an elegantly modern take on traditional Indian cuisine, set to be savored in amazing interiors that combine old world Indian traditional artistry with modern chic.
This delectable opulence is the result of restaurateur (of Café Spice fame) Rajesh Bharadwaj’s passion – junoon, in Hindi – to bring Indian culinary art to this space he felt was a vacuum to be filled. “Indians have made their mark in every field in this country,” Bharadwaj said at a media conference to introduce the restaurant to the South Asian community. “But there was no representation in the Indian culinary market on such a big scale.”
And so, Bharadwaj teamed up with Executive Chef and celebrated cook book author Vikas Khanna along with Culinary Director Aliya LeeKong and Master Sommelier Scott Carney to launch a restaurant of international standards, which is “not a typical Indian restaurant.”
Chef Vikas Khanna, who has just released his new cookbook “Flavors First” and will soon seen on Indian television as host and judge of Master Chef India, gets emotional when he talks of his honesty to his roots when he cooks. “Cooking means nothing if it doesn’t represent a culture,” he says. “We (at Junoon) believe in totally traditional food. Food is all about reminding one f their roots, their home, their grandmother’s cooking.”
Chef Khanna who wants to be remembered as a purist, says fusing cuisines doesn’t work for him. “When I tried to make fusion food, I felt like I was cheating my mom,” he says. “I don’t tailor-make my food to suit every palate. That way I realized I couldn’t please anyone. So I stay traditional.”
Chef Khanna says he is not competing with other Indian restaurants on the busy New York gourmet scene. “I believe in co-existence,” he says. “I want to be part of the proud fraternity, not compete.”
Chef Khanna reiterates how rooted he is in traditional Indian values where food often is a major binding factor for families. “At my restaurant, when a group sits at a table, I do not want each of them ordering their own separate dish. Indian food has to be shared to be relished. I hope people will continue to order for one dish, share it between them and sacrifice the last spoonful for each other just as they do in Indian families.”
As for the restaurant’s ambience, architect and designer Tarik Currimbhoy eminently brings to the space a semi museum like setting with an almost spiritual, Zen like feel. From the reflecting pools in the foyer surrounded by an undulating carved, basket-weave walls of black limestone quarried from India, the “Tree of Life” sandstone sculptures to the beautiful 200-year old hand carved wooden arches to the antique Indian swings and mood-setting mammoth candle-like lamps, the interiors of Junoon unapologetically spell the world “R-i-c-h”.
Passionate that he is, Bharadwaj takes the quality of the food, ambience and service rather seriously. The restaurant actually has a yoga room for its staff to de-stress themselves. And to live up to the standards of Chef Khanna’s cooking standards, the restaurant boasts of a spice room, visible to all, that holds glass jars full of fresh spices that are roasted and ground daily for the marinades and sauces.
The menu features all five elements of cooking – the handi (pot cooking), sigri (open fire pit), pathar (stone), tawa (griddle) and tandoor (clay oven).
As a closing comment, Bharadwaj expresses his awareness of the savvy eater. “People know the different foods in different countries. We can’t take them for granted.”
SRIREKHA CHAKRAVARTY
India Post News Service

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