There’s no doubt about it: the restaurant scene in New York City is absolutely legendary. Think Levain Bakery, Katz’s Delicatessen and, of course, Per Se. This is a city where great food lives.
Plus, New Yorkers are nothing if not adventurous, and their taste for good food derived from many parts of the world is proof of that. In a city home to speakers of 800 languages and with almost a quarter of its population consisting of immigrants to the US, there is no shortage of culture-sharing by way of taste buds here in the Big Apple.
Further proof of that lies right on Broadway Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just off 97th. Running a successful eatery in New York is all about having a trifecta of good food, an interesting menu and a memorable atmosphere. Get off the 1, 2 or 3 train at 96th and Broadway, and you’ll find a restaurant with a collaboration of these three elements – Baazi.
Baazi opened this year and has already managed to become a popular restaurant in a city overwhelmed with options. TMS went down to Baazi for a visit and got to explore the restaurant’s unique menu while speaking with the chef and owner, Gaurav Anand.
From catering to fusion cuisine
Before opening Baazi, Anand was successful in several different culinary endeavors and made a name for himself in catering with his destination wedding catering company, CGA. Gaurav opened Bhatti Indian Grill, his first restaurant in NYC, in 2008. Moti Mahal Deluxe followed in 2012 and Awadh in 2014. He continues to run several NYC restaurants as well as catering for weddings around the world, including in Italy, Spain, Turkey and Mexico.
It was while catering a wedding in Turkey that Anand began formulating the concepts for the unprecedented menu he eventually curated for Baazi. The dishes are based on Indian gastronomy but also bring in aspects of Mediterranean and South Asian food culture.
Anand explains that the bride at a Turkish wedding requested a dish that blended both Indian and Italian cuisine. Struck by inspiration, Anand explains, “I put together burrata and butter chicken,” two things you may not expect to see on the same plate but which delighted wedding guests.
Apart from catering, Anand has been involved in other restaurants, including notable ones in New York like Moti Mahal Delux, Awadh and Bhatti Indian Grill. He was named the best caterer in New York by NY Magazine in 2021. Baazi, though, is one of his most unique projects yet.
“I can make the best chicken masala you’ve ever had,” Anand asserts, though he wanted to create an eating experience entirely different from other Indian restaurants in the city. “New York is the greatest city in the world,” says Anand. And he had ambitions to contribute to that greatness with a new vision.
Even the visual concept of Baazi demands attention. Speaking briefly with Baazi’s general manager – Abla Atoubi, who has worked with Anand for the past 18 months or so on other projects – we learn that her own upbringing and cultural background informed much of the decor for the restaurant.
Atoubi was born and raised in Morocco, though she now resides in the city to manage Baazi. The vivid blues and yellows that adorn both floors of the restaurant and the inlaid design motifs offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York’s busiest borough.
Time to chow down
Speaking of dishes, let’s get to the best part – the food. Settling into the bar area, which is cozy yet chic, we’re able to observe as the bartender creates photogenic cocktails, and each plate that arrives is just as Instagrammable as the restaurant itself. But aside from how pretty the food looks, it’s really about how it tastes.
The merging of ethnic influences in this Indian restaurant may initially seem like something of a gimmick, something you might stop in for once but perhaps not to return. On the contrary, Anand’s skills have created something of a regular fan base.
Another patron sitting at the bar offers maybe the highest praise that Baazi could hope for in a city like this. He divulges that this neighborhood has been dying for a good Indian restaurant and that Baazi is just what he’s been waiting for. This comment checks out, as food culture is more prominent south of Midtown in Manhattan.
We get started with a couple of plant-based dishes. Namely, the Baazi Gobi and the Shakarkandi Chaat. Anand recommends the Baazi Gobi right off the bat, saying, “I’ve got something you’ll really enjoy.” This was not an understatement.
This appetizer is perfect for plant-based eaters, but it won’t be a miss with meat-eaters either. It is crispy and aromatic and a bit on the spicy side. Seeing restaurants put as much effort into vegan and vegetarian dishes as anything else is refreshing, and Baazi does so with dexterity.
Next, we move on to the Shakarkandi Chaat, which is perfectly shareable, each mini skewer placed in its own glass. Also spicy, this dish is complemented by the sweetness of crispy yams and a sweet-sour tamarind emulsion. A bit more elevated and complex in flavor than the Baazi Gobi, this dish is perhaps not best for picky eaters. But for foodies, it is striking fare that’s fun to eat.
The list of cocktails is anything but typical, with a Spicy Ginger Margarita, the Moulin Rouge, the Mr. Collins, the Mezcal Passion and the Old Monk Daiquiri – all of which use simple ingredients to create striking combinations. We take a bet on the Old Monk Daiquiri, which is made with pomegranate, aged Indian rum and lime. Not too sweet, this cocktail arrives in an attractive glass to showcase its beautiful color and well-balanced flavors.
Ask the bartender to recommend a cocktail to complement your meal if you aren’t sure where to start. Not a cocktail person? There are plenty of choices for wine, beer and soft drinks, too.
Betting on Baazi
Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have been some of the hardest-hit businesses, and many haven’t made it out clear to the other side. Baazi speaks on this a bit on their website, saying: “Our love for food, passion and community was stripped from us, and take-out orders became the norm. Inspiration was at an all time low and the light at the end of the tunnel seemed too far to comprehend.”
The meaning in Hindi of baazi is “to bet,” which is just what the Baazi team did to keep pushing on despite obstacles, setbacks and low morale. They bet on themselves – their creativity and ambition kept alive through teamwork – and it seems NYC has responded in kind.
This restaurant looks like any other eatery in New York City from the outside. That’s not a bad thing considering New York’s reputation for excellent food. But its exterior hardly prepares you for the experience within.
We ask Atoubi if Baazi is particularly popular among students of Columbia University. While it’s not necessarily a student hangout, she explains, many people from downtown Manhattan make the trip north for the food here. So not only is Baazi a favorite in the neighborhood, but it’s a place that people will take a subway ride for – which is saying a lot when you consider how many restaurants there are on every single block in Manhattan.
We stepped into Baazi around 5:30 p.m. (just after opening), and there were already some guests seated and a bit of a buzz in the dining room. By 7 p.m., both floors of the restaurant were packed.
While most of the patrons were adults on dates or enjoying dinner among friends, a few families were also dining in with younger children. We do recommend making a reservation ahead of time to ensure you snag a seat.
Overall, the dining experience at Baazi is cohesive. The food is excellent, of course, but Baazi is all about the experience. In fact, it may be one of the only restaurants around that doesn’t offer takeaway or delivery.
The atmosphere is truly just as memorable as the menu, so much so that you can’t get the whole experience without sitting in to dine. But, if you’re looking for a new take on traditional Indian cuisine in NYC, you’ll find it at Baazi.
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