To stand out in the Indian communities of Union County, an Indian restaurant must be outstanding. Khyber Grill passes the test.
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Why open an Indian eatery in South Plainfield on a stretch of Oak Tree Avenue clogged with more than 100 of them? How on Earth can it set itself apart? Akshay Jhanjee and Dipam Patel, the young partners who debuted their handsome, 75-seat Khyber Grill in late 2011, do it with warmth, polish and sophisticated cooking influenced by the North-West Frontier region of India that became Pakistan and includes the Khyber Pass.
Distinctions become apparent even before diners are seated. Jhanjee greets everyone with genuine warmth, and subsequently visits each table. The room is casual but smart, with an appealing juxtaposition of traditional artifacts and new materials. These include banquettes covered in a subtle, modern paisley that refers to traditional Indian design; wall hangings that range from fine Persian rugs to bamboo art pieces; and hand-hammered copper water cups (lined with stainless steel) that gleam in the light of contemporary pendants and sconces.
This is the pair’s first restaurant, but they are by no means novices. Jhanjee’s family owns New York’s popular Bukhara Grill. Patel, who grew up in Sayreville and is Khyber’s chef, earned a degree in nutrition and food management from Montclair State. Both worked for Jhanjee’s family. “We handled catering for as many as 1,000 guests a day and as far away as Florida and Puerto Rico,” Jhanjee told me in a phone call after my visits, adding that he and Patel hope to specialize in off-premise weddings. Jhanjee, raised in New York, recently moved to Fairfield.
What you don’t see much of on Oak Tree Avenue are fine dining restaurants. But that kind of experience—what Jhanjee called “New York style, with New York hours”—is what Khyber aims to deliver. “We want to change the local standard so that people don’t have to travel so far.” He said he has regulars who come from Trenton and even eastern Pennsylvania.
In offering a wide range of kabobs and certain characteristic spice mixtures, Khyber Grill nods to the former North-West Frontier. Jhanjee described the style overall as “rich, derived from the Moghul empire.” To me, the extensive menu reads much like those of other Indian restaurants. Yet certain things do set it apart, starting with impeccable ingredients and the nuanced ways they’re handled, especially in sauces. The kitchen blends its spices fresh each morning. These elevate even a familiar dish like chicken korma. Here, large chunks of succulent white and dark meat luxuriate in an exceptionally fine cream sauce studded with whole pods of tender cardamom, bits of dried fruit and cashews. Like many dishes, it arrives in a hammered copper vessel that not only looks good, but holds heat well.
The first thing you are likely to eat when you sit down is the surpassingly good, cracker-like papadum. Here again, a choice array of aromatic herbs, spices, seeds and pods makes all the difference. But be warned: They pack a wallop, which is surprising since the heat level of most dishes is mild to medium. The spiciness of appetizers and entrées can be turned up or down at the diner’s request. The one dish we asked to be served mild—shrimp biryani, a kind of Indian paella—turned out to be the single spiciest dish in our visits. A miscommunication, perhaps? Probably, because for the most part servers here are enthusiastic, responsive and friendly.
There was no slacker among the many appetizers we sampled. Elsewhere, samosas, a kind of fried dumpling, and fritter-like pakoras are too often bland and leaden, but Patel’s were flavorful and almost sprightly. Chaat is a kind of multifarious snack food beloved on the streets of India; sort of what gorp is to hikers, except savory. We tried kurkuri bindhi chaat, made from fresh okra sliced lengthwise into wispy strips and fried till crisp. They were crunchy and addictive. Fawa crab, a small casserole, came loaded with shredded crabmeat in a creamy tomato sauce imbued with the subtle flavors of torn curry leaves, sautéed onions and the merest hint of ginger. “The spices are clear and bright—earthy, not muddy,” observed one tablemate.
Tangri kebab—three fat, juicy, chicken drumsticks marinated in yogurt and spices—had us licking our fingers. In fact, they made the tandoor mixed grill boring by comparison: In a generous combo that included two kinds of chicken kebabs, lamb, shrimp and cubed white fish, the complex flavors of the various rubs and marinades were undermined by the dryness of the proteins. On the other hand, we couldn’t get enough of baingan bharta: minced eggplant, soft and succulent in a casserole with ghee, onions, tomatoes and aromatic spices. Even lamb rogen josh, that familiar stew of boneless lamb, onions, tomatoes, yogurt and spices, had us exclaiming over its intense flavors and silky textures, enhanced by a generous sprinkling of freshly chopped cilantro. The three baby lamb chops in lamb chaamp were delicious as well. Marinated in yogurt, ginger and garlic, they gain an unusual fluffy-mealy texture that takes some getting used to.
A dish I would gladly order again was bhuna goat, its succulent meat braised in a complex dark red sauce endowed with a raja’s fortune in spices.
We soaked up the chef’s excellent sauces with basmati rice and a basket of several classic, puffy, baked-to-order Indian breads. They are worth the extra cost, but you don’t need both.
Desserts are familiar treats like kulfi, a dense style of ice cream, and kheer, a basmati rice pudding. Like most everything at Khyber Grill, they are expertly prepared. You can call that New York style, as the owners do. I just call it delicious.