for The Village Voice on Jan. 10, 2009
Vegetarians will be excited to learn that the balance has finally tipped on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, a street four blocks north of Journal Square that slopes steeply toward the Meadowlands. What five years ago was mainly a meat-bearing collection of restaurants is now the region's premiere vegetarian enclave. It began with Dosa Hut and Sri Ganesh's Dosa House—South Indian joints specializing in crepes concocted from a rice-and-lentil batter leavened by natural fermentation. South Indian is the world's most advanced vegetarian cuisine, a highly efficient means of using the earth's dwindling resources for the production of protein-rich food.
The latest addition to Jersey City's vegetarian cavalcade is Krishna Cuisine. It occupies a rather grand space a few steps up from the colorful hubbub of Newark Avenue, where greengrocers hawk vegetables unfamiliar to Westerners, vendors roll unguent spice combinations into betel leaves, and shops display the gold jewelry that constitutes an Indian bride's dowry.
Krishna Cuisine doesn't specialize in dosas, instead offering a pan-Indian menu characterized by several regional styles of southern and northern vegetarian cooking. The room is flanked by red booths, with plenty of trencher tables in the middle to accommodate large groups. With its myriad crystal chandeliers, Krishna Cuisine looks like a Brighton Beach banquet hall, or maybe a Greek diner in Vegas. You might begin your meal with iddlis ($4), three fleecy steamed cakes of rice and de-husked black lentils that come with date and cilantro chutneys, offered with a spicy soup called sambar. These iddlis proved irresistible to a two-year-old sitting at our table one evening, and it's hard to imagine healthier or more kid-compatible food.
While iddlis are southern, the deep-fried fritters known as pakoras are a northern Indian favorite. For lovers of hotness, "chilly pakora" ($4.25) signifies a big heap of green chilies coated with a batter of besan, or chickpea flour. (Wheatophobes, take note.) The hotness of the peppers varies wildly; eating them is like playing Russian roulette with your tongue. It represents the cuisine of the Marathi people of western India, who dwell in the vicinity of Mumbai.
The cooks at Krishna Cuisine are crazy for the fresh cheese called paneer. Supremely light and fluffy, it appears in nearly every section of the menu. You can get it frittered in paneer pakora ($5.25) or scented with rosewater in gulab jamun ($3.25). But paneer finds its best use in curries. Sure, that menu section contains such Mughal standards as muttar paneer (peas and cheese) and palak paneer (spinach and cheese), but it also tenders shahee paneer and kadhai paneer. The first immerses lozenges of cheese in a lip-smacking sauce of yellowish yogurt, while the second stir-fries it with mild green chilies in a wok-like pan called a kadhai.
Other northern Indian curries exhibit similar panache. Bhindi masala ($8.99) takes fresh okra from the local markets, lightly stews it with tomatoes, onions, and spices, heaps on cilantro, and, voilÃ !—a dish that pierces to the very heart of the mucoid vegetable. Cauliflower is treated with equal reverence in gobi masala, though you may miss the potatoes normally found in this curry.
The dosas, too, are up to the high standards of Newark Avenue. Most unusual is "family dosa" ($13), an amazing four feet in length, with the potato filling served on the side, along with coconut and tomato chutneys. The waiter carries it in on a stainless-steel tray too small to accommodate the rolled pancake, and all heads in the room lift up from their chow to admire it. The proprietors of Krishna Cuisine seem particularly fond of rava dosas, which substitute wheat for rice in the sourdough batter and cook up lacier and greasier as a result.
Despite the starchy excellence of the dosas, you might want to visit the rice menu. While the so-called curd rice (curd = yogurt) is mildly disappointing in its dryness, the lemon rice is a delightful yellow farrago of nuts, toasted lentils, and spices.
Finally, a female friend who is a lassi enthusiast proclaimed Krishna Cuisine's mango lassi ($2.50) the best in Jersey City. As she explained: "This is made with fresh mangoes. How can I go back to canned mangoes after this?"