Curry Hill restaurants score low grades on health inspections

Posted on September 10th, 2011 by Sabrina Buckwalter in Health & Safety

Mice droppings at a Curry Hill restaurant have cost them many violation points. Photo: Sabrina Buckwalter

Reported on Aug. 20, 2011

The name Curry Hill invokes thoughts of dosa, tandoori, and chaat for Manhattanites who crave Indian food, but for the health inspectors from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the neighborhood has seen scores of restaurant health code violations.

The infractions for Indian restaurants here routinely include evidence of mice and roaches, with additional points docked for serving food at temperatures that are too low, according to the Department of Health.

Compared to other restaurants in the neighborhood, inspectors have graded Indian restaurants very poorly with 84 percent receiving a grade of B or lower, compared to sandwich shops at 36 percent; Chinese restaurants at 38 percent; and American cuisine restaurants at 39 percent.

That incongruity is not lost on the owners of several Indian restaurants in Curry Hill, like Anand Singh (name changed), the owner of Tamba who feels that Indian restaurant owners have been unfairly targeted, “It’s clearly a case of discrimination,” he said.

Another Indian restaurant just a few blocks south of Curry Hill, Tamarind 22, was hit with 31 violation points in July. In 2009, it won “Best Indian” by New York Magazine and most recently received the highest Zagat food rating. However, the Department of Health found at the most recent inspection items not kept at cold temperatures, live roaches, inadequate personal cleanliness, lack of proper hair constraints and conditions conducive to attracting vermin. Owner, Avatar Walia was unable to reach for comment.

New York City’s restaurant grading system began in 2010 in response to 311 hotline complaints about food poisoning, according to the Department of Health. One year has passed since the grading system began. Mayor Michael Bloomberg lauded the improvement in the sanitation of city restaurants during a press conference on August 1 at Spark’s, a deli in Long Island City. There, Bloomberg cited a total of 90 percent of city restaurants that received an A grade. He announced a reward to restaurants that maintained an A for 6 months or longer with waived violation fees (A grades are given to restaurants with 13 or fewer violation points). He said $3 million had been saved in violation fees as a result.

When it comes to violation points in Curry Hill, some owners cite the buffet-style set-up, popular in Indian restaurants, as the cause of many violation points because of the difficulty of keeping temperatures at the required levels. “It’s hard to keep food at a certain temperature when food burners are keeping it warm,” said Singh. The most recent grade his restaurant received was a B for 27 violation points for evidence of mice or live mice present in addition to other violations. He has asked his landlord repeatedly to bring in exterminators, as he says it’s his responsibility to do so, but has had little to no luck getting the landlord to cooperate.

The number of points assessed for a particular violation depends on how much health risk it poses to the public, according to the Department of Health. There are three different categories of violations, including a public health hazard that triggers a minimum of seven points; a critical violation that triggers a minimum of 5 points; and a general violation that triggers at least two points. Public health hazards include temperature violations and visible plumbing problems. Critical violations include the presence of mice and roaches. General violations include the failure to properly sanitize cooking utensils, food preparation areas and failure to wear proper hair covering.

Most often than not, the restaurant contests the grade if it falls at a B or below, at which point there the Health Department’s Administrative Tribunal that holds a hearing for the restaurant owner. The restaurant will then receive a “Grade Pending” card to display in their window until the hearing process is complete in 30 days.

Tamba was closed down because of plumbing issues last year in May, 2010 when a water from an upstairs residence began to seep through to Tamba.

“I was shut down because of a leak that was coming through the ceiling,” Singh said. The landlord couldn’t be contacted to fix it immediately, so Singh said he was forced to fix the leak himself. “I’ve asked the landlord to do something about the mice droppings and the cockroaches, but he won’t do anything. It’s not my building, not my responsibility. Why should I, as a tenant, have to pay for these things?”

Because of the dire situation the plumbing problem created, he said he spent $3,200 of his own money to fix the problem and consequently did not pay his full rent of $12,000 that month.

Restaurants like Tamarind 22 and others are reviewed at a local South Asian blog, NYIndia.us. The bloggers are particularly reverent when it comes to reviewing South Asian restaurants in the city. They keep their website updated with current Department of Health ratings on South Asian restaurants and provide the latest violation details to their readers. They have regularly noted that South Asian restaurants in the city are graded poorly.

With violations there is the threat of food-borne illnesses, but at least 10 people interviewed for this article who eat at Curry Hill establishments did not report gastrointestinal problems. Patrons said they forgave ratings lower than an “A.”

Nick Lopez, a vegetarian who lives just blocks from Curry Hill, says he goes to the Curry Hill restaurants because of the vast vegetarian selections they offer. As long as the food tastes good, he says he doesn’t pay much attention to the health department’s rating system. “It’s nice to know the rating and the risk I’ll be taking, but it’s more about whether I like the food,” he said.

Manpreet Singh, a taxi driver who eats in Curry Hill regularly says he looks at the grade a restaurant has been given and refuses to eat at places that have received a grade of B or lower. “I watch how they make my food and make sure it’s hygienic,” he said.

Amrita Ghosh-Douglas who eats at Curry in a Hurry and Saravana Bhavan didn’t feel the rash of poor scores for Indian restaurants was necessarily bad, “I don’t know how sad this is–it’s a cleanup. All I can say is I’ve never had a problem.” Ghosh-Douglas favors the bad grades in a way, in the sense that it means restaurants will be forced to become more sanitary.

The owners of Curry Hill restaurants feel unfairly targeted and frustrated say Singh. They have a different take on their business since the grading system began. Singh’s wife said she remembers a couple that ate at the restaurant four to five times a week until they saw the “Grade Pending” sign on their window.

According to the World Health Organization, there are 76 million cases of food poisoning each year in the U.S., resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

While the New York State Restaurant Association recognizes the seriousness of food-borne illnesses, its senior leaders also worry that the grading system has negatively affected small businesses. “The amount of fines generated continues to increase, burdening small business owners,” said executive vice president, Andrew Rigie.

Rigie says he has heard numerous complaints from ethnic restaurants that cite a lack of consideration for their form of food preparation and serving methods. “I’ve heard from Japanese restaurants that have complained about violations for sushi rice, and I’ve also heard from Indian restaurants who’ve encountered problems with temperatures of buffet-style food.”

He also says problems like the kind Singh had with his landlord that contributed to poor grades are not unique. Rigie receives complaints from restaurants that receive violation points for rodents because they’re located next to a rat-infested city parking lot.

Though Indian restaurants in Curry Hill have suffered a hit when it comes to grades, business hasn’t slowed for at least one owner. Shiva Natarajan who owns Dhaba and Bhojan will open his third Curry Hill restaurant next month.

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