When I visited Junoon, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, owner Rajesh Bhardwaj told me that his goal was not to have an Indian restaurant but to have a restaurant that served Indian cuisine. The distinction is more than subtle, it puts the emphasis on the dining experience to break down the stereotype of the average Indian restaurant. Junoon is no average Indian restaurant; it offers an extraordinary dining experience with a menu that is based on tradition but creative and exotic as well.
It was Bhardwaj's goal to do the same thing in Orlando when the owners of Raga called upon him to take over the business and make it the restaurant they had originally wanted but had accomplished with only limited success. After some cajoling by the owners, Bhardwaj agreed to take on the task. The result is American Gymkhana, a fine dining experience with an Indian flavor.
The name is derived from the sports clubs popular during the raj where the British and India's social elite would meet. The decor, which has been completely reworked from the Raga days, is less like the typical gymkhana of dark wood paneling. It's less masculine, more elegant and very comfortable. The open kitchen remains, and there's something less masculine there, too.
That's executive chef Aarthi Sampath, who comes to Orlando from the kitchens of New York's Junoon. A native of India, Sampath is a classically trained chef, having worked with the Taj group in India and studied at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. At American Gymkhana she combines her skills and knowledge of Indian spicing with Florida-sourced ingredients. And the results are quite satisfying.
The menu may have some dishes whose names are recognizable to anyone who is familiar with an American or British Indian restaurant. But you're more likely to find new and intriguing descriptions. My advice: be adventurous, allow yourself to discover something new.
Perhaps you'll try one of the starter plates of adraki gobhi, cauliflower fritters with ginger and galangal. Or Banjara fried chicken, with curry leaf in a yogurt tinged sauce.
For a main course, the Nashile lamb chops flavored with whiskey, ginger and black cardamom is worth an try. So is the goat roganjosh, with tender goat shank in Kashmiri chili with clarified butter.
My favorite among the vegetarian offerings (and there are several) was the eggplant kut, baby eggplants roasted with curry leaf, mustard and honey. You will also find lamb vindaloo, a korma here or a pasanda there — the more familiar names. And they won't disappoint. In fact, under Sampath's skilled direction even these standards become new.
Something you'll find quite unusual for an Indian restaurant (or even just a restaurant that serves Indian food) is an extensive wine list. Even better, you'll find staffers with the knowledge to pair a wine that will complement the myriad spices of the food.
And if you'd rather a cocktail, you'll find several craft creations that were developed by Junoon's beverage director Hemant Pathak. I met Pathak when I visited Junoon and was delighted to see him in Orlando. He was part of the opening team and came to town to help train the American Gymkhana crew, who appear to be quick studies.
It's wonderful to have the Junoon pedigree come to Orlando, and American Gymkhana is a great addition to our Restaurant Row.
American Gymkhana is at 7559 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando (second level, accessible by elevator or staircase). It is open for dinner daily. The phone number is 407-985-2900.