Utsav, a second-floor restaurant located directly opposite the Diamond District, and not far from Times Square, initially gives a quiet impression. There is no corporate overture, no grand entrance, and no boastful accomplishments smeared on the walls, as seen in many of Utsav’s competitors.
Instead, a walk past a quaint bar and up a flight of stairs led straight to the lobby of the restaurant; elegant but modest, and not at all overdone. Classic Indian decor lined the walls, adding to the delicate story of the scene without being ostentatious. I was greeted by Jaison, the General Manager, and before long, I was seated at a cordial table with a view gazing up at several towering skyscrapers located right across the street.
At the table, I was given a food and drink menu, and I began examining my options. What delighted me at once was to see carefully denoted vegetarian options, separated from those with meat, which made it easy for me to find what I could eat. Being familiar with Indochinese cuisine, I found some familiar favorites, like Chili Paneer and Hakka Noodles, as well as several new items I had not before encountered, such as Crispy Chili Babycorn. Every item looked deliberately chosen, and nothing seemed in excess or without purpose; in a relatively short Indochinese menu, all bases of the cuisine were covered for any preference. Soon, Nandita Khanna, the owner of the restaurant herself, came to greet me. She was extremely friendly, but also chose her words carefully and seemed to peruse over each sentence before delivery. We discussed the purpose of my visit, and then she began explaining her story.
A History in Fine Dining
Nandita comes from a long line of restaurant owners, in a family where food is a deeply rooted tradition worldwide. Despite her grandfather owning nineteen restaurants in Tokyo, they had had their beginning in Calcutta, India, Nandita’s home city. “Calcutta is the Indochinese center of the world,” she told me. “This is where the best dishes come from.” She explained how Utsav is the only restaurant owned by her family in America, and thus, she has no other members to assist her in its daily operations. “It was tough for the last several years, especially with Covid. We lost a lot of business. I didn’t even have money to pay my landlord sometimes,” she explained grimly. However, unlike many other specialized restaurants that closed during the pandemic, Utsav was able to prosper once more. “It’s rare for a female owner to make it in the restaurant business. We recovered from Covid, but I have not reached my goal yet. There is still more work to be done.”
To begin, Nandita asked me what I had tried previously at other restaurants, and what dishes I preferred. She made recommendations utilizing my responses.
After I told her I am a big fan of paneer, she implored me to try her Chili Paneer. “You’ll also love the Cauliflower Manchurian and the Crispy Chili Babycorn,
I know it’s exactly what you’ll like,” she stated vehemently. Trusting her judgement, I obliged. I appreciated her effort in catering to my preferences, and simultaneously bringing me out of my comfort zone to try something I would have otherwise missed. Nandita also recommended several original cocktails, and I chose to try a turmeric-ginger one, and after assuring her that I could handle the spice, a jalapeño coriander one.
The drinks were delivered to me, and I realized I could not in fact handle the spice. Still, they were light and refreshing, and I welcomed the Indian twist. The appetizers also began to trickle to my table, and I noticed there was special care taken in the presentation—each dish was beautifully lain, with sauces and garnishes perfectly arranged and appealing to the eye. All three plates were great: the babycorn was crispy and perfectly seasoned (I wish it was available at movie theaters), the manchurian’s gravy was succulent, spicy, and thick, and the chili paneer was the highlight, with the paneer cooked to the perfect consistency and the sauce tangy and flavorful. The appetizers left me with anticipation for what could be next.
Nandita already had some entrées in mind when she came back to my table. Recognizing that I absolutely loved the paneer appetizer, she suggested I order the Paneer Szechuan for the main course. She also added a Manchurian Vegetable, a Burnt Garlic Coriander Fried Rice, and for something more familiar, a Vegetarian Hakka Noodle. After ordering, I conversed with her further, learning that she would be traveling back to India the very next day. “You picked the perfect day to visit,” she told me. “After today and I would not have been present to serve you.” She explained how she had not been home to India since prior to the pandemic, and she would be going back for the first time in three years. “I do not have any family here, everyone is back in Calcutta.”
My food arrived, and if the appetizers shocked me, the entrées were on a whole different level. Deeply enriched with various spices and sauces, and possessing a definite inspiration from traditional Indian-Chinese cooking, but with a tantalizing modern presentation, each dish was a journey to behold. The aromatic gravy of the Szechuan Paneer, with sautéed onions and peppers mixed in, was unbelievable.
Not being a fan of rice, I was still unable to help myself to the garlicky pangs of flavor emanating from the coriander rice, and the Hakka noodles and Manchurian left little to be desired. Each plate, carefully crafted with an eye for detail, left me with a different experience; each had a story.
For dessert, I was reluctant to try something new. I had ventured into the realm of Indian sweets before, and I had never been impressed; the overly sugary confectionary taste was not for me. Nonetheless, Nandita assured me that her classic Mishti Doi would be perfect for me. She told me it was a Bengali delicacy, and with little other information, I trusted her judgement and ordered it. I also ordered a traditional Ras Malai, an Indian milk-based dessert that I was fond of, as backup.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Mishti Doi. A family recipe, Nandita explained what the name means: mishti is “sweet” in Bengali, and doi was analogous to “dahi”, a word for southeast-asian yogurt. The dish was sweet-yogurt indeed— a creamy, reddish-orange hue curd presented in a chilled clay pot. It was simply delicious, with a lightly sweetened taste that was not at all overbearing. Of course, the Ras Malai was perfect as well.
A Story Through Cuisine
Thoroughly having enjoyed my meal, and bidding Nandita and her servers farewell, I began to reflect on the insight I had gained about the restaurant.
Utsav has been open for nearly 23 years, almost a quarter of a century. After it was opened in 2000, it has been giving every restaurant goer a taste of what it means to not only serve good food, but to have a purpose behind the food. Nandita wishes to share her culture and heritage, the very essence of her upbringing in the city of Calcutta, with each of her patrons, and this is clearly evident.
You can see it in the excitement she has when suggesting a dish, or the way her eyes light up when explaining what it consists of. She is a living testimony to presenting food as an art form—a piece only becomes art once there is a story behind it.
I cannot recommend Utsav enough, and I implore anyone that is in the area to visit it at the corner of 6th Ave and W 47th street in Manhattan.