Monday, February 13, 2006

Airs and Stars New York City Entry #70

It took several courses before I "got" Devi, the mbitious Indian restaurant, set smack in the Union Square restaurant district. I had considered Devi and Tabla as rough equals in New York's culinary space. Indeed, both have tasting menus and according to Zagat's their price points are not vastly different (outside Z's world, the difference is significantly wider, with Devi the less expensive). Restaurants may gain or suffer by these implicit comparisons, hard to shake.

Devi does have airs - any restaurant that provides alternate tasting menus, and that advertises their chefs - Pastry Chef Surbhi Sahni, and Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur - asks us to take them seriously. Yet, Devi's professed intent to create authentic regional Indian home cooking places their goal betwixt haute cuisine and street food.

Devi is not Tabla in looks or culinary style. Its decor, service, and cuisine is more humble than Danny Meyer's pleasure palace on Madison Square. This is not to suggest that Devi's food doesn't alternately satisfy and amaze, but it represents a modest cuisine, not a grand one. Its ambitions are somewhere between Curry Row and Savile Row. The decor is an upgrade of the Indian-restaurant-in-a-box; gauzy, gaudy, gossamer, and rosy, not a candidate for Architectural Digest. And with a six course tasting menu, we were out the door in under a hundred minutes. On this snowy evening, staff weren't turning tables (the restaurant was largely empty), but their efficiency was nervy.

In contrast to Tabla with its imagined place in an international culinary universe, Devi is about is creative and impressive as an ethnic restaurant can be in New York (and quite possibly anywhere, given the quality of ingredients available on this magic island).

Selecting from the two tasting menus, our combined menu consisted of:

Fried Cashew Ball (our amuse)

Calcutta Jhaal Muri: Rice Puffs, Red Onions, Chickpeas, Green Chilies, Mustard Oil, and Lemon Juice

Salmon Crab Cakes: Tomato Chutney Mayonnaise

Sweet Potato Chaat: Sweet Potatoes, Toasted Cumin, Chaat Masala, Lime Juice

Aloo Bonda: Potatoes, Mustard Seeds, Curry Leaves, Ginger, Hot Pepper, Tumeric, Urad Dal, Chickpea Flour

Tandoori Quail: Spicy Fig Chutney

Grilled Scallops: Roasted Red Pepper Chutney, Manchurian Cauliflower, Spicy Bitter-Orange Marmalade

Mirchi Wali Machhi: Halibut, Roasted Pepper Chutney, Spiced Radish Rice

Manchurian Cauliflower: Spicy Garlic Infused Tomato Sauce, Scallions

Mirch Ka Salan Aur Puri: Preen Bell and Hot Peppers, Coconut, Peanuts, and Tamarind Curry with Puri Bread

Tandoori Prawns: Eggplant Pickle, Crispy Okra

Tandoor-Grilled Lamb Chops: Sweet and Sour Pear Chutney, Spiced Potatoes

Jackfruit Biryaani: Basmati Rice, Potatoes and Whole Spices, Yogurt Sauce, Okra Chips

Emperor's Morsel: Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding, Cardamon Cream, Candied Almonds

Pistachio Kulfi: Indian Ice Cream, Candied Pistachio, Citrus Soup

This is quite a spread, and at $60 for six courses, by no means unreasonable. Chef Saran and Mathur push the envelope of Indian cuisine, but never puncture it. Despite their creativity, they reject a fusion cuisine, but remain fully planted in the varied regional cuisines of India (the restaurant does not inform diners of the regional components of the cuisine, leaving the impression that the culinary choices are undifferentiated). With several tandoori dishes, a heavy use of peppers, and multiple chutneys, dishes tend to blur.

The most memorable creation, given this array, is among the most modest. Chefs Saran and Mathur's crispy okra might better be labeled okra frites. The crispy fried strips of okra were magnificent. Okra is one of American's uniquely despised vegetables - abhorred for its repulsive slimy sludge - but if okra were served so cleverly it would challenge potato chips for America's heart. I also admired the tandoori prawns that shared a plate with the okra. This dish was the star of the evening.

The pair of crab cakes were suffused with pleasure. They were cooked simply in a surprisingly subtle tomato chutney mayonnaise. They were sublime. The tandoor-grilled lamb chop with a vibrant sweet and sour pear chutney was exceptional as well, even if the spiced potato seemed standard issue. The flavors of the Grilled Scallops were complex, particularly with the bitter-orange marmalade. Of the two desserts, the Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding was superior with the addition of crunchy candied almonds on a canvas of saffron.

Other dishes proved less successful. Those on the Vegetarian Tasting Menu did not match the skill shown with meat and fish. The cashew amuse was a spicy bite of not-much. Manchurian Cauliflower, slathered in ketchup was sickly sweet, and no match for a superb, ketchup-free version I enjoyed at Chinese Mirch. The Biryaani lacked much of a punch (also true of spiced radish rice). For some reason, Devi was not successful with rice dishes, seemingly a standard of Indian cuisine. While I happily sipped the citrus soup served with the Pistachio Kulfi, I found the ice cream less compelling than that available from dozens of unassuming stands in Jackson Heights.

Devi rides high in comparison with Indian restaurants throughout the five boroughs. I was fully satisfied with what might well have been the best "ethnic cuisine" of my New York stay. This is no backhanded compliment, although these ambitious chefs might, perhaps, take it as one. I grieve over the absence of a glittering Michelin star for Tabla; the stars that Devi deserves are those twinklers on a clear winter night, admired while walking home from Union Square tickled and astounded by what Indian cuisine in the right hands can reveal.

8 East 18th Street
Manhattan (Union Square)

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