From Brain Toast to Ghost Chili Murgh Tikka: The Exalted Indian Culinary Temple Junoon Gets a Reinvention
Restaurant images by Candle Light & Grip and Layer Studios
When Junoon opened in New York’s Flatiron in 2010, it arguably represented a new pinnacle for refined Indian food, offering the kind of haute experience generally more associated with French or Japanese restaurants. Epicures were treated to rapturous six-, seven-, even ten-course menus, and by 2018 it had earned eight consecutive Michelin stars – with the distinctions piling up even after original chef Vikas Khanna departed in 2016. (He notably spent 2020 on a relief mission for food insecure people in India.)
But over the last several years the allure of the Michelin star has waned a bit, especially considering the cost of keeping it up. And seventeen months of coronavirus lockdowns forced philosophical re-evaluations of most truly ideologically driven restaurants. So Junoon, with restaurateur Rajesh Bhardwaj still running the show, downscaled to a slightly smaller space at 19 W. 24th Street, just off Fifth Avenue – though the room is still drop dead gorgeous, sexy even, with beautifully carved screens, a deep/dark wood ceiling, ethereally hanging teardrop lamps, and an elegantly rustic pastry station.
But the biggest change is the retiring of the aforementioned tasting menu, in favor of a striking, perhaps even a bit provocative new a la carte selection. Chef Akshay Bhardwaj, who has been at the helm – and has won consistent raves – since replacing Khanna five years ago, has crafted dishes that are approachable but designed to startle the senses. To wit, small plates include Watermelon Chaat w/ honeydew, cantaloupe, black salt, rind achaar, pistachio & goat cheese; Paneer Mirchi Pakora w/ shishito pepper, homemade cheese, tamarind, mint chutney & strawberry chutney; and Tandoori Octopus w/ maathani red chili aioli & aloo bonda. For the mains it’s Snapper Moilee w/ coconut milk, fenugreek, turmeric, heirloom tomato & hearts of palm; Tellicherry Duck w/ dry-aged normandy duck breast & tellicherry peppercorn sauce; and for the vegetarians Mushroom & Truffle Khichdi w/ lentils, rice, truffles & mushrooms.
What Chef Bhardwaj has accomplished at the new Junoon is to take the many and diverse flavors of India, and bring them together in one place, presenting them as they’ve surely never before been presented.
“Our menu philosophy is to take inspiration from different regions of India and cook them authentically,” he explains, “but with our own twist – which can be substituting the traditional vegetable in the dish for something local we find in NYC, or utilizing a different technique to help elevate it. We want a balance of vegetarian dishes, and to emphasize interesting produce paired with traditional Indian cooking concepts.”
But most intriguing is the unambiguously named Brain Toast, consisting simply of goat brain, toasted brioche and sour green apricot. And it should be stated right here that if we’re taking away a few exigent lessons from the collective brush with death that this long pandemic has presented us with over the last 500 or so days, it’s that we should try new things now, while we still have the chance. And maybe, just maybe, one of those things should be goat brain.
Bhardwaj justifiably enthuses, “We want our guests to feel some nostalgia and representation, but also the sense that they can’t find this anywhere else – uniqueness for us is key.”
With Priyanka Chopra and David Rabin‘s new Sona restaurant having also opened nearby in the Flatiron, and it already getting glowing reviews, perhaps the always buzzy NYC neighborhood is ready to re-establish itself as a genuinely unique culinary destination. But for those still a bit jittery about indoor dining, chef Bhardwaj was kind enough to share the recipes behind two of his most original creations.
Exclusive Recipes From Chef Akshay Bhardwaj + Junoon
Chettinad Lobster Rasam
Lobster served in a South Indian black pepper and curry leaf curry (serves 4)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, whole
1 teaspoon black pepper, whole
4 dry red chilies, whole
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 cup red onions, diced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, whole
In a pan on medium heat, dry roast the red chili, cumin, coriander, peppercorn, onion, and garlic until fragrant. Transfer to a blender and grind it into a fine paste (add water to consistency).
2 tablespoons canola oil
5 curry leaves, destemmed
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 medium plum tomato, finely chopped
1 cup (or more) water
2 whole lobster (1-1.5 lbs. each) cooked and broken down
To taste salt
Heat pan over low heat and add oil. Add fennel seeds and curry leaves. When the leaved begin to crackle, add onions and tomato and sauté.
Once onions are golden brown (5-7 minutes on medium heat), stir in the rasam paste and add turmeric.
Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add water, alllow to simmer and reduce a little for 5 more minutes.
Add lobster and cook for 3-5 minutes on medium heat until lobster is cooked. Salt to taste and serve.
Ghost Chili Murgh Tikka
Ghost Chili-Marinated Chicken, Pear Chutney (serves 4)
2 pounds Boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pint Strained yogurt (should be enough yogurt to coat the chicken)
1 tablespoon Ginger paste
1 tablespoon Garlic paste
½ tablespoon Black salt (or regular salt to taste)
1 tablespoon Fenugreek powder
1 Lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon Cumin powder
1 tablespoon Garam masala
½ tablespoon Ghost pepper paste (recipe follows)
1 recipe Pear chutney (recipe follows)
To taste Salt
In a bowl, mix all of the ingredients, coating the chicken thighs.
Preheat oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, place chicken on tray and bake for 8-12 minutes until chicken is cooked through. To get color, turn on broiler for 1-2 minutes.
Brush with melted butter and serve with pear chutney as a dipping sauce.
For Ghost Pepper Paste
85 grams dried ghost pepper
900 grams water
Bring water to a boil and add ghost peppers. Let water boil gently on medium to medium-high heat for 25-30 minutes. Let cool and blend in a blender to slightly smooth, paste-like consistency.
For Pear Chutney
2 tablespoons Mustard Seeds
2 tablespoons Curry Leaf
2 tablespoons Ginger, minced
7 cups Pear, roughly chopped
¾ cup White vinegar
4 tablespoons Sugar
1 tablespoon Salt
3 tablespoons Canola Oil
1. Heat oil in a pot, add mustard seed and curry leaf
Once mustard seed and curry leaf are crackly, add ginger and sauté until golden brown.
Add pear and sweat
Add white vinegar, salt, sugar to finish.
Blend to smooth consistency