NEW YORK — To get an idea of what is planned for the redo of Raga, visit Junoon on 24th Street in Manhattan, just west of Broadway. Here you’ll find a sophisticated and elegant restaurant with a menu of stylized dishes with the flavors of India. But owner Rajesh Bhardwaj would rather you not think of it as an Indian restaurant.
Bhardwaj, a native of New Delhi, has been very successful with Junoon, which has garnered very good reviews from New York critics and has been awarded a Michelin star from the storied guide. He is about to open another Junoon in Dubai, and then he will focus his attention on taking over Raga on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row in Orlando. But that restaurant will not be another Junoon, at least not in name.
Instead it will be called American Gymkhana. Gymkhanas were high society sporting clubs — think polo ponies and cricket bats — in Colonial India where members of the British raj would mingle with Indian social elites. It was in these clubs that Indian food was transformed, influenced by British style and tastes, into the type of cuisine that is served globally as Indian.
“I want to do good, authentic, traditional Indian food, and showcase it,” Bhardwaj told me as we sat in the quiet lounge at Junoon on a Saturday afternoon, “but I don’t want to do it for the Indians.
“I’ve always said if I wanted to do a restaurant for Indians I’d open one in Mumbai or Delhi.”
To demonstrate, Bhardwaj asked chef Jonathan Portela to prepare some of Junoon’s signature dishes. As you might gather from the name, Portela is not of Indian descent. In fact, says Bhardwaj, of the 16 cooks employed in the kitchen, only four are Indian.
The names of the dishes are familiarly Indian, but the presentations are as elegant and nouveau. We sampled the murg lababdar, a tomato based sauce accented with ginger, cooked in a tandoor and finished in masala sauce. And lamb posanda, similar to a a korma, with a cashew based sauce tinged with apricots and almonds. And there were cured scallops and eggplant chaat. It was all impressively delicious.
And the flavors had me anxious to experience the same in Orlando.
So why not just do another Junoon in the Raga space? “If I was to do Junoon,” said Bhardwaj, “I would have to have 80 percent of the menu and the style.” He said he wants to give the chef — who has not yet been named — the freedom to create his own menu. (Although it was originally stated that Vikas Khanna, the clebrity chef who serves as executive chef for Junoon, would be involved with the menu design for the Orlando restaurant, Bhardwaj said Khanna’s participation would be limited if at all.) “The quality will be the same,” he said, “but sometimes you don’t want to attach the same brand if you’re not going to make it the same thing.”
That said, Bhardwaj is using the same design firm, Currimbhoy, that designed the understatedly elegant interior of Junoon, the highlight of which is a 50-foot basin with eight-foot tall sandstone “Tree of Life” sculptures that separate the two dining areas.
American Gymkhana’s interior will be influenced by colonial India and the sporting clubs it is named for. Expect dark woods, tufted sofas and rich leathers. Don’t expect what Bhardwaj called the “Casino Royale” look, with lots of peacocks and henna.
Bhardwaj said that although he’s done Indian restaurants all of his life, his mission statement has always been the same: “I want to do a restaurant which sells Indian food, not an Indian restaurant.”