Nothing is more exciting than trying a new food or cuisine with which you have had little or no exposure and discovering you really like it. Such was the experience of one of our dining companions who joined us with some reluctance for our dinner at Haldi Chowk. Happily, by the end of the evening she was already looking forward to a return visit.
In Hindi, Haldi is the word for the spice turmeric, and Chowk is a junction or marketplace; thus, this 7-month old restaurant in Middletown is literally a Turmeric Marketplace, where the cuisine of India, a vast country of 1.4 billion people, is represented in many varied forms; from Northern meat and fish dishes, to Southern, grain-based vegetarian plates, and Central and Coastal regions as well.
The storefront location in a large strip mall is clean and bright, with Indian artwork hung on green walls.
A vast number of our fellow diners were couples and families who clearly knew their way around the menu, but we had no problems making good selections with the exceptional help from our charming waitperson, who patiently explained dishes in great detail, with a broad smile. He inquired as to the level of “hotness” we desired in each and every item, from mild to hot, allowing everyone in our party to enjoy their meals fully.
The runaway favorite opener was a plate of Bhel ($4.95), a mix of crunchy puffed rice, Sev (small pieces of crispy chickpea flour noodles), chopped vegetables, potato cubes, peanuts and tamarind (a sweet/sour fruit) sauce. Often served in India in a paper cone as street food, this crunchy, savory, sweet and mildly spicy dish was totally addictive and so engaging that I will return soon, if for this alone.
HC Veg Platter ($11.95), an assortment coated in Gram flour and deep-fried, included a sampler of Mirchi (jalapeno peppers – yes, they were incendiary), far milder Tikki (potato patties), mixed pakoda (vegetable fritters), and Samosa (spiced, mashed potato-filled pastries). Something tasty for everyone.
Ordered spicy to suit the palate of one companion who has never met a dish too “hot” for him, Lamb Saag ($14.95), tender, succulent chunks of slow-cooked lamb in a spinach curry with great texture and flavor, had a mildly pleasant kick, but not overwhelmingly so.
Fragrant, smoky-flavored Baingan Bharta ($10.95), charcoal grilled eggplant, mashed and cooked in onion, tomatoes, cardamom, and spices, resembled a warm Baba Ganoush taken to the next level. More please!
Not to be missed, the Dal Makhni ($9.95), black lentils and red kidney beans, tomatoes, butter, cream, spices and a cilantro garnish, was so aromatic as to command our attention upon arrival. The creamy texture played off that of the legumes, making for a wonderfully balanced dish.
A wide range of tandoor (clay oven) dishes are offered. We opted for Chicken Tandoori ($11.95 half/ $16.95 full) and were rewarded with juicy, tender chicken on the bone, which had been marinated in spiced yogurt and herbs, and then cooked to a burnished deep orange-red from deftly used red chili powder and turmeric. We really liked this.
With more than a dozen breads on the menu, but a rapidly diminishing capacity, we felt it necessary to at least try a couple of the basic ones. The HC Bread Basket ($9.95); warm plain naan, and garlic naan, made from wheat flour and baked in the tandoor, provided good foils for the stews.
Indian food can be tricky to pair with wine. High alcohol or heavy tannins are no-nos. HC is BYO; we brought a German Riesling: 2015 J.J. Prum Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a slightly sweet, refreshing acidic flavor profile (think lemonade), which stood up to the milder dishes, but not the bolder ones. Besides Germans, other whites which would work include Demi-Sec Vouvrays (Chenin Blanc) from the Loire, and Austrian Gruner Veltliners. A 2011 Cru Beaujolais, J. Desjourney’s Chapelle des Bois Fleurie, with good black fruit, soft tannins and Asian spices, worked well as a red to pair with the meats and fried appetizers. Beer is also a reasonable choice to cool the spice-numbed palate, but a shot-in-the-dark pick of an Indian-made Taj Mahal Premium Lager Beer, was too light and watery to stand up.
For dessert, Malai Kulfi ($3.95) cubes of rich condensed milk ice cream, were cooling and refreshing, as was the Kheer ($4.95), rice pudding, flavored milk, cardamom and saffron, cooked to a firm, but yielding consistency.
Much Indian food served here in the United States focuses mostly on Northern regions, but the menu at Haldi Chowk is as vast as the country, with very good, freshly made fare from all over that land. There were many dishes that we were unable to sample in one visit, but now that we have found this gem, we will definitely be returning soon.
1409 Route 35 North
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the March 9-16, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
If you liked this story, you’ll love our newspaper. Click here to subscribe
You may also like
By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen | The Monmouth Coun...
By Rick Geffken | TINTON FALLS – The restored 19...