Rock the Jazba
RESTAURANTS • First Person
Walking into Jazba, a new Indian restaurant on the corner of 2nd Ave. and E. 13th St. in the East Village, my mind sprang back in time to the space’s former inhabitant: David Chang, in the kitchen of Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
After Ssäm Bar blew up, Chang converted the small, adjacent room up a sloping hallway into the first Momofuku Milk Bar. There, for a time, one could procure Christina Tosi’s fresh-baked cookies and cakes right from Tosi herself. Then Milk Bar blew up, too, and moved across the street (and eventually around the world). The original Milk Bar became home to another legendary Chang joint venture, Booker + Dax, a bar manned by crazed cocktail creator Dave Arnold.
So goes the indelible fact of living in New York City: spaces we fall in love with — because of their occupants — will often pass into other hands. And so: mid-pandemic, Momofuku shuttered Ssäm. The entire space sat empty until work began on Jazba earlier this year. I feared for the newcomers: To follow the original Ssäm Bar — the most important restaurant of this century — is quite a task. But let’s see.
We arrived twenty minutes late courtesy of an Uber mishap, but the maitre’d whisked us into that same back room (now a proper dining room) sans attitude for our lateness: a lovely start. The restaurant, all vibrant yellows and oranges — the kind prevalent throughout India — with watercolor murals of Indian street hawkers on the walls, was packed and loud. And just like that, the past was painted over, and we were in a new epoch, experiencing its new joys.
Chef Akshay Bhardwaj opened the more upscale Junoon with his father Rajesh over a decade ago. Here, they’ve gone deceptively casual, with dishes inspired by dhabas, casual roadside eateries found throughout India. Though the menu offers adventurous detours (consider bheja fry, pan-fried brain masala), we went more straightforward, choosing as starters the stuffed onion kachori and butter chicken served on the bone. The sauces of both were drinkably good. For mains, the Press Club korma (baby goat served with roti) and seafood biryani, both excellent.
As the maitre’d sent us off as warmly as he greeted us, we left in that elevated mood that comes from a great meal at an ambitious new restaurant. Only something completely different from Ssäm Bar would work in this space. You’ll find that something different in Jazba. –Lockhart Steele