As the major riverine port of a nation that's home to more than a billion people, Calcutta hardly lacks for culture. The city's cuisine—a multicultural mishmash of Indian, British, Jewish, Chinese, and other culinary traditions—is but one example of its stunning diversity. A Calcutta Affair's menu captures this diversity in dishes such as the fish fry and the Calcutta Chow, the latter a mixture of noodles, veggies, and meat that's reminiscent of stir-fry.
Despite the competing influences, Indian traditions still hold the greatest weight in the Calcuttan kitchen. This explains why many of A Calcutta Affair's dishes are prepared with Bengali flavors such as five-spice (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and mustard seed) and freshly ground mustard paste. The tandoori dishes are billed as the restaurant's specialties, and one taste of the chicken marinated in sour cream and spices will tell you why. An exotic selection of beverages includes mango lassi and litchi juice with rosewater, though guests can also bring their own beers, wines, and nonalcoholic bathtub gin.
Upon first glance, the kitchen at iSpice could belong to any upscale restaurant in America—it's filled with skilled chefs slicing up tender cuts of meat, pans of aromatic sauces simmering on the stove-top, and plenty of fresh produce packing the shelves. The kitchen's fiery tandoori oven is the first hint that this eatery specializes in dishes that are slightly more exotic than your standard meatloaf or steak sandwich. Peek inside, and you'll find fluffy naan, plump tiger prawns, and juicy cuts of lamb.
The next clues to the eatery's unique cuisine come with further inspection of the bubbling pots and sizzling pans, which simmer with exotic ingredients like ginger and coconut and softly hiss the words to popular Bollywood songs. The kitchen's chefs use the fresh ingredients and spices to craft a sweeping variety of Indian specialties, from tangy fish curry to spicy lamb vindaloo. Their guests sip on sweet mango lassi and split orders of samosas out in the sunlit dining room, where elegant abstract paintings speckle the golden walls.
Just as Rilke wondered to the young poet if the answer to "why do you write?" is resoundingly "I must," chef Jasbir Singh has built his life around his passion to cook because "those with passion do not know another way to live." In other words, he must. As owner of Guru Palace, Singh spends most of his time in the kitchen, where he puts his many years of experience to use. But that experience is also a jumping-off point for experimentation. The result is a vast menu of aromatic Indian and Thai cuisines, many of which are prepared in the traditional methods (such as tandoori), while others serve as evidence of Singh's open-minded interpretation of well-executed dishes.
The key to great Indian food, according to the chefs at Pooja Restaurant, isn’t its spiciness, but its spices. Roasted, fried, or ground into pastes, the culinary team’s handpicked spices are carefully deployed to bring out each dish’s strongest aromas and flavors. Spices marinate okra and succulent lamb, heat up shrimp cooked in honey and vinegar and add zest to cream sauce coating vegetable balls stuffed with homemade cheese. Besides spices, Pooja’s cooks rely on curry powders, meats, and veggies—all fresh, never canned or packaged—for the restaurant's other 160-plus traditional options, which range from goat curry to sag paneer.
Hand-woven Persian carpets drape from the ceilings at Khyber Grill above guests enjoying meals set to a soundtrack of Indian instruments. Hand-hammered utensils and custom-cut plates cover the rustic tables to recreate the atmosphere of a traditional Indian outpost. Like the decor, the menu, created by Akshy Jhanjee and Dipam Patel, takes special care to recreate the feel and traditions of India, earning the restaurant the Critics' Pick for Indian cuisine in New Jersey Monthly's Jersey Choice Awards. Regional dishes from the North and West range from wok-sautéed shrimp to Punjabi-style mustard greens to lamb rogen josh cooked with onion, tomatoes, yogurt, and a special blend of spices. The master chefs prepare their spices from scratch each morning to make sure the dishes are as fresh as possible and that the spices don't turn sour.
Against walls of pure white and an ornate carpet laced with swirling embroidered flora, statuettes of horses rear up over steaming trays, hinting at unbridled fistfuls of spices. From the kitchen emerge golden knots of samosas alongside korma dishes and halal meats, and Punjabi and Mughlai influences gleam through in some concoctions. When the buffet is in action, more than 60 items fill the gleaming banquet table, which billows hot steam that foretells of fresh-from-the-oven tandoori dishes and goat biryani. A chandelier illuminates the perimeter of Shahnawaz Palace's banquet space, which staff configures for a variety of events, whether it is the large head table for a joyful wedding or the heaps of folding chairs for a wedding between professional wrestlers.