Mixing Indian food, tapas concept in Chelsea

Restaurant aRoqa serves Indian food in a smaller, tapas-style portions. (Courtesy aRoqa)

BY GABE HERMAN | For owner Monica Saxena, her Indian restaurant aRoqa is more than just another local place to eat in Chelsea.

“I dreamt of this for 20 years,” Saxena said recently while sitting at a table at aRoqa. “I look at it as a dream, and a dreamer.”

Saxena lived in New York in the 1990s and would moonlight as a restaurant hostess. She said she was always interested in the food industry, and wanted to understand how restaurants differentiate themselves.

“I had wanted to open an Indian restaurant since I’m in my 20s,” she said, “because I love feeding people and entertaining people.”

But that thought was put on the back burner for many years. She moved to California in the late ’90s, working in the technology industry for 14 years at Qualcomm.

She moved back to New York in 2013, and that was when the restaurant idea started to become reality.

But Saxena didn’t want to open just another Indian restaurant. She felt the market was saturated with curry houses that served big portions.

“I love tapas and I love the appetizer portions of menus,” she said. “For me, it was, why can’t Indian food be served in a tapas-plate concept? And with good cocktails.”

The interior of aRoqa has a modern, chic feel. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

She felt smaller portions would also be better for people going out on a date, and wanted to create a place that was fun, plus with a “nice, warm, welcoming environment,” she said.

The restaurant’s name comes from the Indian “roka” ceremony, where family and friends celebrate the engagement of a couple. The menu includes dinner plates, including shared-plate options, along with lunch specials and weekend brunch.

Saxena found the location at 206 Ninth Ave., between W. 22nd and 23rd Sts. It was a burnt-out space, formerly a Chinese restaurant. She started to implement her vision of it, decorating in a modern chic style. She found a local Chelsea artist, Anthony Gaugler, whose work lines the walls. The restaurant opened for business in June 2017.

Chelsea was a great fit for aRoqa, Saxena thought, because it had very few Indian restaurants and it was an artistic and creative neighborhood that would be more open to the new concept of combining Indian food and tapas.

“There’s no better place than the Chelsea people, who I feel are adventurous,” she said. “The neighborhood has really taken to us.”

Before aRoqa moved in, the space at Ninth Ave. needed a lot of fixing up. (Courtesy aRoqa)

There were some early struggles for aRoqa, however. A year into opening the restaurant as an investor, circumstances led Saxena to get involved full time in running and managing the operation personally. This included building relationships with local customers, and ultimately turning the business around.

She remembered thinking at the time, “I’m 53 and I want to run one last race of my life.”

After taking over operations, Saxena didn’t sleep for the first week. The second week, she said she cried. But then she decided to learn the restaurant business inside and out.

The city’s restaurant industry is competitive and very difficult, she noted. There are high rents and steep food prices, a higher minimum wage, and now paid sick leave in the city, plus the mayor’s push for two weeks’ paid vacation for workers, which Saxena recently wrote about in an op-ed in this paper.

Yet, her business is doing well, she said, and continues to increase every month. And she noted that the success of any small business comes with a close team that works together. Saxena cited the chef Manni, mixologist Prasad and floor captain Ashish, “who helped us pull together to create a success story.”

She remains determined to continue making her dream restaurant work.

“I’m running that race now,” she said, “and not ready to give up.”

More information on aRoqa can be found at aroqanyc.com.

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