601 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Hauppauge
AMBIENCE: Hip with a stay-for-a-while pace.
SERVICE: Friendly with a made-to-order ethos
ESSENTIALS: Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Sunday. Buffets only on weekdays at lunch. Wheelchair accessible, though may be tight for bathroom.
Toiling inside a Hauppauge strip mall shared by a taqueria, a Five Guys and a nail salon, Lubna Habibi is pushing the limits of authentic South Asian food.
To be sure, Clay Oven has plenty of ubiquitous halal Indian and Pakistani classics: made-to-order versions of tandoori chicken, saag paneer and vindaloo, and a lunch-only buffet that plays heavy on these types of safe options. An Indian restaurant needs them in order to compete on much of Long Island.
But at Clay Oven, Habibi has created a laboratory that also challenges such conventions with thoughtful cooking, while providing motherly service that makes you trust she has many wonderful dishes to share.
In her hands, the tandoor oven meets chicken wings, pakoras play on cheese sticks and a lamb meatball curry falls in the Scotch egg family.
As her story goes, Habibi was never supposed to cook for a living. Born into a well-to-do family, there were servants who staffed the kitchen in her native India, then Pakistan after her father was transferred there to manage a bank. She was drawn to the cooks at a young age, much to her father’s dismay, and ended up in the United States as an electrical engineer with a job at LaGuardia Airport. It was a career that did not suit her, and she soon opened a deli in Rego Park.
That began a 30-year journey of failed attempts at running Indian restaurants in Queens and Long Island, vacations from Paris to Mumbai where relaxation meant taking classes to build her culinary repertoire, and seven years of consulting on halal menus for airlines, giving her access to cuisines and chefs from around the world.
Clay Oven is a culmination of this expedition, a multiethnic halal menu that is heavy on Indian and Pakistani fare rounded out with Middle Eastern dishes such as hummus and baba ganoush. Here, halal-observing diners can eat approved versions of burgers, hot dogs and tacos that are largely off-limits in mainstream restaurants.
A second location (the first was opened three years ago in Smithtown) became necessary to deflect the crowds. Opened two months ago, it’s a hip, 40-seat space, painted in warm greens and oranges with exposed ceilings, track lighting and a large scarlet couch for lounging. Both have the same menu.
Dishes are cooked to order and come out as they are ready. Note: plates, bowls and silverware are of the disposable kind.
To start, paneer pakoras are a play on mozzarella cheese sticks. Logs of traditional Indian farmer cheese are rolled in green chutney, breaded in chickpea batter, fried and dusted with a cayenne-laced spice.
Tandoori chicken, which is conventionally roasted without the skin, also comes in wing form, skin intact. The result is a plate of flappers that rivals any wing that takes its orders from Buffalo — with a blistered, spicy, red-tinged crust that tears away to meat that falls off the bone.
Crispy triangle-shaped samosas are filled with ground dark meat chicken instead of more traditional beef or lamb. (You won’t find much white meat in Habibi’s kitchen. She feels it tends to dry out too easily in classic Indian cooking.)
Aloo bonda, mashed potato cutlets battered in chickpea flour and fried, are beautifully arranged on top of a bowl of soothing yogurt and nutty chickpeas, and finished with a spicy green chutney and tart tamarind sauce.
Meat tends to do better than vegetables (crispy okra is soggy, chana masala dry). The tandoori lamb chops are almost too tender to share, having been bathed overnight in a mix of papaya, yogurt and tandoor spices, while a whole eggplant takes its cue from the Middle East, creamy roasted flesh stuffed with crumbles of Indian-spiced ground lamb.
Anda kofta (literally translated as egg and meatball in Hindi) is a play on a Scotch egg dish — moist meatballs, some of which encase a hard-boiled egg, are cooked in a classic yogurt and tomato broth.
You’ll want to leave room for chai and dessert, which are traditional but less sweet than the average Indian spot, especially the kheer, a creamy rice pudding that has been thickened over several hours and finished with almonds and pistachios.
As you finish, Habibi may stop by to pack your leftovers, tell you she doesn’t like waste and make sure that your to-go bag won’t leak.
It led one dining guest to tell her, “You remind me of my mom.” Without a pause, Habibi responded warmly, “I am your mom.”