Baar Baar (New York, August 2019)


Baar Baar is a recently opened mod Indian restaurant in the East Village in Manhattan. Its name means “again and again” but I have no desire to eat there again, which is a shame because there is real talent in the kitchen. But that talent is in service of taking what could be excellent iterations of more traditional dishes and marring them with unnecessary jhatkas or flourishes that must read well to those looking for novelty but which come across as trying too hard on the plate and palate. At least so it seemed to us at our table. I ate here two days after my dinner at Adda and here again I was sans the missus; I dined instead with more people who I know from the food internet. In this case, one person I knew in the heyday of Another Subcontinent (and her partner) and two others I’ve come to know more recently on Twitter but had not met until this meal. So as to not tarnish their reputations by association with me I will preserve their anonymity.

We’d planned on eating together a month before I arrived in New York but it wasn’t till a few days before the dinner that we figured out where we would go. Adda had been everyone’s first choice but i was already booked there. The soon-to-close Bombay Bread Bar was another option but I was due to eat there with an old friend from high school. We mulled spending gobs of cash at Indian Accent and then finally ended up choosing Baar Baar for reasons I can’t fully remember. One moment I was making fun of parts of their menu and website in a group chat and the next I was making a reservation.

That reservation was for 8 pm on a Thursday. I arrived promptly at 8 to discover a much larger restaurant than Adda, with a large patio alongside. (The people eating on the patio were to be driven in unceremoniously by rain a little later.) The interior is divided into two sections. To left of the entrance is the main dining room, with a mix of tables and banquettes; to the right is a large bar with some high tables in front of it. It was there we were sent when our party was complete. The decor is eclectic, if you want to be generous, half-heartedly pandering to orientalism, if you don’t. There’s a lot of lush colour on the walls and the bar end of the restaurant is dominated by a large mural of a woman staring menacingly at diners (looking more than a bit like Reena Roy playing a daku, as one of the party said), as if to say, “go ahead, order the tuna papdi chaat if you dare”. This seems, by the way, to be a new plague in mod Indian restaurants in New York—not the tuna papdi chaat, I mean, but large murals of women staring at diners. As odd as this one is I was to encounter an even more hideous one at Bombay Bread Bar later in the week. But I get ahead of myself.

The menu is divided into half/small and full/large plates sections. There are also a few stuffed kulchas and chutneys and a bunch of sides on offer. Pretty much everything, with the exception of some of the sides, is a traditional dish of some kind that has been passed through what the chef seems to perceive as a “modern” filter. “Make it new!”, you can almost hear someone shouting in the kitchen—if by making it new you mean adding tuna and tobiko, and sickeningly sweet rose to otherwise serviceable papdi chaat and dahi puri respectively. The paneer chilli roll looked striking but was a flavourless non sequitur. Elsewhere truffles were shaved over kulchas presumably just to say they were. In place of paneer there were three leaden and entirely anonymous-tasting jackfruit koftas floating on pureed greens. All of this is meant to flatter someone’s view of their own progressiveness: the chef’s? the diner’s? We were mostly bemused.

The more traditional sounding dishes didn’t fare too much better. The alleged chicken 65 was closer to basic Indian Chinese chilli chicken and too gloppy even for that. Why the soggily fried cauliflower was billed as “Koliwada”, I have no idea. And the limp pollichattu masala atop the red snapper (itself cooked well) clashed with a pool of what seemed to be mustard cream sauce (the other fish dish on the menu was supposed to have this). Far too many things were much sweeter than they needed to be.

That’s not to say that everything was a disaster. On the small plates front the Kerala chicken roast was quite good and among the large plates I quite liked the tandoori mushrooms over polenta (and the truffles in this dish didn’t feel out of place). Superfluous truffle and cheese toppings aside, the stuffed kulchas were also decent—though as with all baroque stuffed kulchas, not really possible to use to sop up sauces without clashing with them: the stuffings here included apricot and duck and green peas and goat cheese. Somewhat ironically, the most successful dish was probably the entirely traditional black dal. Oh yes, the chutneys were all serviceable too.

For a look at the restaurant and the food please launch the slideshow below. I apologize for the low quality of the pictures. Between the lighting in the restaurant and the conversation I was not taking very much care. Scroll down for drinks, thoughts on service, cost and value.

Drinks. The cocktail menu like the food menu is full of high concept concoctions. Of these a few of us got what is listed in the bill as a Cucumber Cooler (it’s not listed on the menu for the night). It was quite refreshing. One person followed up with a Ghee Old Fashioned which he quite liked. Beyond that, some beer and wine. I don’t remember what the dessert situation was but we were disinclined to try it.

Service was largely clueless—by which I mean the servers manifestly knew nothing about the food. And here I must note something I brought up at dinner as well: what is it with mod Indian restaurants and the near complete lack of South Asians in the front of the house? None of the servers at Baar Baar were desi; the same was true at Adda a couple of days ago and at Bombay Bread Bar a couple of days later. It was mostly the case at Rasika as well the previous week (and when I ate there in 2015). And for that matter I don’t believe there were any South Asian servers at Devi when we ate there in the mid-2000s. Expensive Japanese restaurants, for example, don’t seem to have any issues with hiring Japanese staff for the front of the house; why do these expensive Indian restaurants seemingly believe that a lack of South Asian servers is a way to signal modernity/progressiveness—if that is indeed what’s going on? Or did I just manage to eat in the space of two weeks at the only four mod and/or expensive Indian restaurants on the east coast that have this staffing policy?

Speaking of expensive, with tax and tip this came to almost exactly $90/head. That’s a lot of money to pay for not very good food (and quite a bit more than we paid at Adda—though rents in the East Village are obviously higher than in Long Island City). Frankly I wouldn’t be in a hurry to eat here again even if it were a lot cheaper. I enjoy mod takes on Indian food when done well (see Indian Accent, Delhi or the Cinnamon Club in London) but this just seemed mostly gimmicky. Your mileage may vary—they were certainly very busy.

Okay, up next from New York: more sandwich-based action.

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