Australian restaurateurs Jessi and Jennifer Singh have turned their minor Melbourne hit into a smashing success in New York City.
Indian-born chef Jessi Singh, his Brooklyn-born wife Jennifer, and their two small daughters moved from Melbourne to New York in December 2014. They opened Babu Ji NYC in May, designing, painting and furnishing the small East Village shop themselves, cramming in 50 seats and a help-yourself beer fridge, hoping that the style of fresh, freewheeling Indian cuisine they developed in Melbourne would find an audience in New York.
“We had three quiet days,” says Jessi Singh. Then Adam Platt, the critic from New York magazine arrived. He enjoyed Singh’s goat curry with blackberries, the hung yoghurt kebab and the potato croquettes in pineapple sauce. “He tweeted about it and that was it,” says Singh. “We had a line down the street the next night and no quiet days since.”
Other write-ups followed: the New York Times and Wall Street Journal blessed the restaurant, taste-making website The Infatuationnamed the little eatery the city’s best new restaurant for 2015, the New Yorker enthused about the Indian-Chinese cauliflower and restaurant guide Zagat declared the gol gappa, a spherical one-bite street snack, one of the best things it had eaten in 2015. “We were stoked,” says Singh.
However, more than any of the accolades and attention, it was during the recent late January blizzard that Babu Ji NYC’s success really sunk in. “The whole city shut down,” says Singh. “Cars were off the road. There were no buses, no taxis, no trains. But we had a line in front of the restaurant and an hour wait for a table. In a blizzard. We couldn’t believe it.”
The Singhs owned two Indian restaurants in Melbourne – Horn Please in Fitzroy North and Babu Ji in St Kilda – which they sold to their staff when they left. These places (and their first one, Dhaba at the Mill, in Kyneton) were well-loved and earned solid reviews but no-one would suggest that they took the city by storm. “We were busy, we were happy, we were just doing our own thing but we wonder about the difference in how our food was received,” says Singh. “Indian food hasn’t made it that big in Australia – same with Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and African. Maybe people take it for granted, they just think of it as a local curry house. In New York, they have big respect for all different cuisines.”
Respect doesn’t necessarily mean New York has great food. “There are so many bad restaurants here,” says Singh. “There are 15 million people on this tiny island every day. No matter how bad you are, you don’t need a repeat customer so everybody can still make money.” Singh thinks the runaway success of Babu Ji NYC is in large part thanks to the schooling Melbourne gave him. “Melbourne is a great foodie city with very high standards,” he says. “I always tell people that a hole in the wall in Melbourne can beat any restaurant in New York. We thought, if we can make it in Melbourne, we can make it anywhere.”
This story first appeared in The Age, February 8, 2016.
Read my 2013 profile of Jessi Singh.