Indian eateries in the New York City of the early seventies, were amateur affairs characterised by greasy, too-spicy food, surly waiters and shabby decor. The dishes listed on the menu were Mughlai / North Indian ( lamb dopiaza, chicken jalfarezi, tandoori chicken,biriyani etc.) indifferently executed by cooks who were almost all Bangladeshi. Patrons were mostly Indian students and others looking for cheap, plentiful food. One didn’t go to such places for a dining experience.
Establishments became more professional in the mid-seventies when Indian hotel chains entered the picture and opened restaurants such as Gaylord and Tandoor. Cookbook authors such as Madhur Jaffrey sparked interest in Indian food and, as American palates became more adventurous, there was a sharp increase in the number of Indian restaurants. Menus expanded beyond the tired old ” Mughlai” fare to include dishes from other regions of India such as Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.The food was prepared , not by self taught cooks , but by trained chefs, some of them graduates of the CIA ( no, not that CIA; I mean the Culinary Institute of America). To be sure there still are some greasy spoons but there also many, many finer establishments typified by Tamarind ( started by the late chef/owner Raji Jellapalli) and the Danny Meyer owned Tabla where Floyd Cardoz presides over the kitchen. As Indian food has grown in popularity, Indian restaurants have ventured outwards, first into the suburbs and now into the hinterland.
Dabbawala , in Summit, NJ is one such restaurant.
Perhaps a brief explanation of the restaurants name will be useful for readers of this blog who are not familiar with the Indian scene. ” Dabba” is a lunchbox or tiffin carrier and consists of stacked metal containers connected by a yoke and fitted in an insulated container. A dabbawalla is the man who picks up these dabbas in suburban homes and delivers the home cooked meals to office workers; he also returns the empties to housewives each afternoon. In Bombay ( now Mumbai), a network of 5000 dabbawalas working in relays deliver 200,000 + meals to officeworkers each day.Without computers or even a piece of paper, these mostly illiterate dabbawallas use an ingenious system of a few basic symbols to get the meals to their proper destinations.They never make a mistake and they do this all for a monthly charge , per customer, of about $ 5. Forbes magazine has awarded the dabbawalas it’s coveted Six Sigma rating , meaning they make less than one error in 6 million transactions.
The Dabbawala in Summit is quite different from any other Indian restaurant that I have been to.To begin with, the seating consists of comfy, low backed banquettes on either side of white formica topped tables. ( This may sound like cafeteria seating but it works).The walls are covered with blown up photographs of dabbawalas and other Mumbai residents going about their work. Overhead are brightly colored rectangular ‘umbrellas’ and in the back near the kitchen , hanging from the ceiling, are the stainless steel dabbas which give the restaurant it’s name.Your server will deliver your food to your table in these dabbas and unstack the containers, each of which contains one of the dishes you have ordered.
The Dabbawalla menu is eclectic ( that word again ! ) and features dishes from both North and South India , as well as Indian- Chinese fare. For appetizers, we had Bombay Tuk ( roundels of lightly spiced sauteed new potatoes, served with a tamarind sauce) excellent and innovative Bombay Okra (greaseless morsels of thinly sliced okra, battered and deep fried) and vegetable spring rolls. Main courses we sampled included Beef and Pumpkin Lonvas (I’ve never heard of Lonvas, but the dish consists of beef cubes in a pureed pumpkin gravy) , Chilli Chicken, Pork Vindaloo and Paneer Tikka Masala( very good) . Desserts we tried were an excellent Carrot Halwa with vanilla ice-cream and the Cassata Special. Overall , the food was light, moderately spiced and good rather than great. The presentation was superior and the service was laudable; the servers clad in bright pink salwar kurtas were efficient and pleasant. The appetizers were in the $6 range, the entrees about $ 13 ( veg ) and $ 18- 21(non-veg ) and the desserts approximately $7 each…… a bit pricey, but I guess you have to pay for the superior ambience.
For those accustomed to all -you- can eat $10.95 buffets, this is not for you ; but if you are willing to pay a bit more for a pleasant dining experience , Dabbawala is worth a visit.
Dabbawalla/ Birdy’s Bakery and Patisserie 427 Springfield Avenue, Summit, NJ. (908)918-0330. BYOW.
Birdy’s is an Indian / European pastry shop at the same address and under the same ownership. It ‘s specialities include Madiera Cake, BournVita cake and milk cake; all kinds of chocolate treats such as chocolate truffles, mocha cream cakes and fudge; bibinca and lattice-topped fruit pies. We were unable to visit it because it had closed by the time we finished our dinner. You might want to go there before you dine.