Are you just a tad intimidated when it comes to ordering or tasting Indian food? If you are, you’re not alone. I’ll admit I fall into that category. I am also a very curious diner and love to try new things—when I have someone there to hold my hand.
I got said handholding in Freehold last month when I was invited to a Diwali celebration at Aarzu, Modern Indian Bistro. If you need to brush up on your Diwali knowledge, click over to Anthony Ewing’s excellent piece on the holiday here.
Aarzu is described by owner Kamal Arora as Indian fusion, a “modern Indian bistro.” Arora’s goal for the restaurant is to introduce traditional tastes and textures of Indian fare through elegant presentation more in line with what fine diners have come to expect. In other words, you will not find an Indian buffet at Aarzu. What you will find is delicious food with exotic sounding names like “hirva thecha fennel shrimp” and “aloo bonda.” All of the dishes on the menu are carefully explained by their patient servers. They are also trained to ask “how much heat would you like?”
Many people shy away from Indian food because they think it will be too “spicy hot.” While heat is definitely an integral part of Indian cuisine, even our host, and CEO of Arora Hospitality Group, Kamal Arora, admitted that many Indians don’t like their food too hot either. (If you can’t taste the ingredients, what’s the point, right?) Many people also believe that curry is at the heart of all Indian food. It was explained to me during our lunch that while curry is a favorite element of Indian cooking, there are plenty of delicious dishes that do not feature curry.
On the day of my visit we were treated to the Chef’s Tasting Menu. (We’ll talk more about Aarzu’s chef later.) This is a 7-course meal that’s available by request, in advance. This menu is typically presented to a table of 10, so get your friends and family together for a memorable culinary adventure and call ahead to reserve the chef’s table.
We started the meal with aloo bonda which is a popular south Indian street food. And street food never looked so good. Aloo bonda consists of a spiced potato filling with a crispy exterior that is deep fried. This aloo bonda was served with a deghi chilli yogurt (made from Kashmiri chilies which are small and less spicy and give that bright red color) yogurt sauce and a cute little banana crisp lean-to.
Next was the charred cottage cheese appetizer with panch phoran tomato relish (above). Panch phoran is a mix of five spices also known as Bengali five-spice. The dish is topped with a tiny piece of edible metallic paper which is symbolic of celebrations. This dish was served with masala papad, a thin, crispy waferlike food very popular in Indian cuisine. I really loved the savory flavors and creamy texture of this dish. A perfect vegetarian option.
Next out was the hirva thecha fennel shrimp with squid pakora (Indian fritters), mushroom khichdi (a South Asian rice and lentil dish) and truffle oil. A stunning presentation (my photo doesn’t do it justice.) This dish was another delightful combination of textures and tastes and went away far too quickly. I could have had a dozen.
Our final appetizer round was the ginger lamb chop with a quinoa pulao (pilaf) and mint chutney. It was explained to us that while quinoa is not a traditional Indian ingredient it is now very popular in India. The lamb was cooked to perfection and paired perfectly with the mint chutney which is savory and acidic.
A palate cleanser of frozen coconut with rose numbu sharbat reduction was served before moving on to the main course. It may have just been a palate cleanser, but it gave me my favorite photo of the day and was so yummy. Next time, whole bowl please.
Our main course was the dhaba butter chicken with fenugreek, naan and a shot glass of patiala lassi. Kamal explained that this is the most popular Indian dish in restaurants and traditionally cooked in a clay oven. The naan (Persian word meaning bread) was light, delightfully chewy and the perfect scoop for the tender chicken and creamy sauce. Rice is typically served with this dish to temper the heat and Aarzu finishes the dish with a small copper mug of patiala lassi which also helps with any lingering heat. (Patiala lassi is a traditional yogurt drink that’s very popular in India.)
Last on our tour of Aarzu’s chef’s tasting menu was dessert of course. As you can see, a playful presentation frames the dark chocolate halwa mud with cocoa hazelnut “soil” and sugar rangoli. In Chef Sharvan’s words “It’s our take on the classic Indian semolina pudding. The taste is closer to a chocolate brownie.” All I know is that it’s a chocolate lover’s dream.
Executive Chef Sharvan Shetty uses local ingredients to make his dishes shine with very little interference. The quiet and humble “chef-in-the-making,” as he likes to refer to himself, has earned his chops in some of the world’s most premier vacation spots including The Taj Exotica Hotel & Resort in Goa, India, at the Mediterranean restaurant Miguel Arcanjo and later was selected by a team of experts to be a part of the launch of Trident, a deluxe five star property in the Mumbai, india. He came to the US in 2010 to work at the Hilton in Philadelphia where he worked in the Banquet Kitchen, Delmonico Steakhouse and the Polo Lounge. He moved on from there to Urban Spice, one of the Arora Hospitality Group’s restaurants in Edison.
Owner Kamal Arora, executive chef Shravan Shetty, chef Dayanand Shetty, and
managing partner Archana Sharma celebrated their first Diwali in the new venue.
Photo by Jingo Media.
During the month of November the restaurant is holding a “buy-one-give-one” campaign. For every meal served at Aarzu, the restaurant will donate a meal of equal value to a local food bank. Managing partner Archana Sharma is a big proponent of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and wants to make giving back a mission for the restaurant. Archana also has an artistic flair that guests see throughout the restaurant. The frames on the walls display pieces of her personal sari collection.
In addition to the main dining area, Aarzu has a private banquet hall with private entrance that can accommodate about 150 guests. For smaller get togethers the party room can accommodate 30 to 50 guests. There is also a patio in the back that will make for great warm-weather dining.
Aarzu Modern Indian Bistro
30 E Main Street