Restaurant Review: Kebabs From India, in So Many Shapes and Forms

Kebab aur Sharab, on the Upper West Side, celebrates flat yogurt kebabs, lamb chops on a long pole, and more.

Much of the menu is drawn from Delhi and Punjab, but other parts of India come into play.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

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By Pete Wells

New York City is large and full of kebabs. There are self-basting kebabs of marinated lamb threaded with chunks of fat from a lamb’s tail at Uzbek grills; fried saucer-shaped patties of ground meat kneaded with flour at Afghan restaurants; skinless sausages of cevapi piled into freshly baked and opened loaves of lepinja at Balkan joints; bullet-shaped doner kebabs orbiting slowly beside a vertical flame at Turkish pit stops.

But the world is even larger and even more full of kebabs, including many that are rarely tasted here. There is always room in the city for one more. When a place like Kebab aur Sharab on the Upper West Side comes along, offering a whole specialized line of kebabs from around India that takes up three pages on the menu, it is an event.

Kebab aur Sharab recently slid into a space on West 72nd Street that had been home for decades to a kosher dairy restaurant and bakery. The new owner, Salil Mehta, a native of New Delhi, chose the Indian peafowl as the restaurant’s mascot. They appear, in flared-tail splendor, behind the bar, on the bar-stool upholstery and in a psychedelic mural on the skylight covering the entire ceiling and back wall of one dining room. The corner of another room is dominated by two peacock chairs, those extravagantly fan-backed rattan thrones on which portrait photographers have posed Al Green, Morticia Addams, Huey P. Newton, Claudine Longet, Michelle Obama, Trader Vic and Sylvia Kristel, wearing pearls and not much else above the waist in posters for the 1974 soft-core film “Emmanuelle.” Eating an entire meal seated in one can make you feel both regal and ridiculous.

The chef is Dipesh Shinde, newly arrived in New York after cooking for several years at places in Delhi and Mumbai owned by a group called Massive Restaurants. Pictures suggest his cooking there verged on light postmodernist fusion, with foams and swooshes of sauce trailing from balls of kofte like comets’ tails.

Mr. Shinde emphasizes tradition at Kebab aur Sharab. The menu is most at home dealing in well-loved foods from Delhi and Punjab, but it makes forays into other areas of India. He keeps the stagecraft to a minimum, apart from brightening up curries with the occasional tuft of sprouts and dropping dry ice into clay pots of punch so they arrive at the table exhaling mist. The menu cites the theory that “punch” derives from the Hindi word for five, the supposed number of ingredients it takes to make one. As etymology this may be shaky, but it is a rock-solid excuse for this Indian restaurant to offer a few bowls of sophisticated, non-cloying punch on its bar menu.

Indian kebabs come in many shapes and sizes. Very finely chopped meat is pressed around a skewer to create the impaled sausage called doori kebab. Mr. Shinde makes his doori kebab with young goat. It is so tender and delicate it is almost like grilled pâté, and is easiest to eat inside a folded a piece of sheermal, crisp flatbread brushed with saffron butter. (Breads are always worth eating here, especially the pliable soft sheets of roomali roti.)

The chopping-and-pressing method also gives us the seekh kebab of rib-eye, a juicy, mild beef mince seasoned with onions and peppers. And it produces the vegetable seekh kebab, which is the color of old cabernet. Fragrant spices and a biting green chutney of mustard and pickled greens help tame the flavor of the dominant ingredient, beets.

Another kebab family, or group of families, are the skewerless flat discs that are fried or browned on a griddle until they resemble latkes, or fish cakes. The chapli kebab, a meat patty from Peshawar and farther north, is made here in a meatless variation with corn kernels; it comes off as a bit sluggish. But I’m fascinated by the crisp, golden Awadhi-style dahi kebabs, shaped from spiced yogurt that has been drip-dried until it is essentially a tangy semisoft cheese that warms on the griddle without quite melting.

Of course, regular meat-on-a-stick kebabs can be found, too. The tandoori chicken is unusually fine, cooked on the bone and for once not the color of lipstick. Lamb chops marinated in yogurt with garlic, ginger and Kashmiri red chiles are carried to the table on the end of a very long, sharp, terrifying steel pole that could be used as a weapon, an implement of torture or a surgical device. The pole hinges in the middle so you can swing the chops down to plate level.

An all-kebab dinner would not be out of line. Once you venture into main courses that don’t contain the word kebab, the going gets dicier. King crab legs are misspent on an oddly plain garlic butter. The seasoning in both the yellow and black dals could use more focus, and the mint chutney, splashed over the sweet potato chaat and served alongside many other things, always seems a bit watery and tired.

There are, though, some terrific little venison meatballs with ghee roast, inspired by a fiery dry curry that is a minor obsession in the southwestern city of Mangalore. And somebody at the table is sure to want what the menu calls “famous butter chicken.” This should be encouraged, because the butter chicken at Kebab aur Sharab is among the best in the city.

All the same, I may prefer the menu’s other butter chicken. This version, which goes by the name Aslam butter chicken, is not quite as famous as the one with the sweet and rich tomato gravy. It is still fairly famous, though, especially in the alleys by the Jama Masjid in old Delhi, where it is grilled outdoors, sloshed with heavy cream and butter, dusted with ground spices and eaten in great, dripping quantities. The Aslam chicken at Kebab aur Sharab will not put wood smoke in your hair and butter on your elbows. But it is still very good. And it is a kebab.

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