Sunday, December 18, 2005

Janus and Ganesh New York City Entry #43

Some restaurants gain the attention of diners, while others, seemingly well situated are passed over. We hear a lot about Craft, little about March. Much about Bouley, not much about Chanterelle. Perhaps sheer talent has something to do with the matter (and it certainly should), but all four restaurants present food at a high quality of proficiency, and each would be candidates for the best restaurant in Cleveland - or perhaps Boston. What distinguishes the great from the sturdily competent.

In looking through the culinary discussions, I have been impressed by how little attention has been paid to Tabla, the haute Indian restaurant on Madison Square, part of Danny Meyer's collection. The relatively brief discussion on one list focused on the superior service with precious little about the food.

Tabla has been a favorite restaurant (my last meal three years ago was stellar), and so I returned tonight hoping for greatness. I find Tabla one of the loveliest restaurants in town, more captivating that the brittle and artificial fantasyland of Spice Market.

As always service was cordial and efficient, although I wished that the servers spent more time personally explaining the dishes on our five course Late Fall tasting menu, rather than expecting us to examine the printed card on the table.

The dishes from Floyd Cardoz's menu are proficient, even if a few nits are to be picked. Perhaps - as others have noticed - dining at Tabla seems a slightly schizophrenic experience. Some dishes veer toward European classical models, others go Goan. Unlike some high end nouvelle Indian restaurants (Chutney Mary in London, for instance), Chef Cardoz does not have a signature style, and in this he differs from his mentor Gray Kunz, formerly of Lespinasse. In contrast, he mixes Indian and continental styles in various measure.

Our amuse was a very congenial pumpkin soup with pumpkin seeds. The flavors here were curried, rich, and exotic. Unlike most pumpkin soups, this was stock-based, not cream-based. It was satisfying, if perhaps not tingly.

As a first course, we were served "Seared Nantucket Bay Scallops in a Cider Consomme with Apples and Thai Basil." In contrast to the amuse, this titled French. Bits of fresh sweet scallops were covered a basil-spicy consomme. I was grateful that it was a small tasting because the cider and apple made the dish over-sugary. Fine cider is always welcome, but for an exquisite memory, a greater reliance on herbs would have been warranted.

We then moved to "Rice Flaked Turbot with Yellow Foot Chanterelles, Tuscan Kale, Applewood Smoked Bacon and Jaggery-Tamarind Glaze." Jaggery is a cane-based sweetener, and as with the first plate, sugary tastes dominated. Our first two dishes were every bit as caloric as the Apple Tatin dessert. The turbot was coated in rice-krispie-like kernels, which while amusing at the moment, have receded in memory. I enjoyed the dish while on the table, but it seems too precious as I now consider it.

The third dish, "Coconut Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Baby Basmati Risotto, Mustard Puree and Lobster Jus," was less of a dessert than the first two courses, but only by comparison. I was startled that the lobster was cooked to translucency: far less than is expected. I can't judge whether this was a choice or an error, and haven't concluded whether more stove time would have added or subtracted. As it was, the lobster became more noticeable. In contrast to the lobster the spiced risotto might have been slightly overcooked and slightly underseasoned. I enjoyed the dish in its moment of consumption, but wonder as I write this how it might have been modified to the point of splendor.

Our final main course was "Stone Church Farm Challan Duck Two Ways" (breast slices and chopped) with braised endive, horseradish, and orange curry. Chef Cardoz deserves credit for his mix of flavors, but the flavors become somewhat muddy in the consumption. With too much on the plate what begins a study in opposites because mush.

Dessert was Apple Tarte Tatin with Greenmarket Quince Membrillo (a type of quince paste) and Musu Apple Fritter (and what I took a vanilla based sauce). This closing was more European than Indian (although the apple fritter recalled a Jackson Heights Indian sweet. As is now often the case (as in the recent Baked Alaska I enjoyed at Café Gray), this reflected the pastry chef as literary critic. Olga Lusin, like so many of her peers, is a deconstructionist. With five components of the tatin on a long rectangular plate, Chef Lusin forced us to play with our food. I enjoyed it, although it fell short of tatin in which the chef did the work for us.

Writing this entry, I am startled. I enjoyed the meal more than it may appear from my critique. I now complain about each course, but while eating, I was pleased. Perhaps my complaints reveal that the food at Tabla is easier than thoughtful, more honeyed more than precise. I cherish Chef Cardoz for his candy and his bite - his Janus and his Ganesh - but perhaps I desire a cuisine of intention: a philosopher in the kitchen.

11 Madison Avenue (25th Street)
Manhattan (Flatiron District)

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