Restaurant Week 2006 – Part II, Two Indian Dinners
The first week I dined at Madhur Jaffrey's Dawat, which was the first New York restaurant to serve multiregional Indian specialties. My dinner partner was my old friend Manda, a fellow foodie with a discerning palate. The first and only prior time I had gone to Dawat was about 25 years ago, also with Manda. As I mentioned in my Indian restaurant memoir, it was the first time I discovered that there was a world of Indian cuisine beyond the abominable curry holes of 6th Street. Dawat's Restaurant Week menu displayed a common problem with the concept: the three-course meal, at $35, not only featured some of the restaurant's least interesting items, but it turned out not to be much of a deal at all once you did the math. Instead, we decided to order a la carte, and ended up spending less than we would have with the prix-fixe. One of our appetizers, an off-menu special Hyderabadi lamb kebab was wonderful, tender and mildly spicy. The aloo tikki, curry leaf flavored potato cakes, were very good, as was our bread, an onion and black pepper kulcha. Main courses were less successful. Manda and I decided to repeat one of the dishes we had together 25 years ago, the Parsi-style patra-ni-macchi, salmon covered in coriander chutney, steamed in a banana leaf. We were served a surprisingly enormous hunk of fish, but unfortunately it was rather dry. We also tried the Sindhi karhi: A Specialty of The Community of Western India, This Vegetarian Stew Is made with Chick-Pea Flour and Vegetables & Seasoned with Tamarind & Fenugreek Seeds. The dish was interesting, with a bit of a tang from the tamarind, but too short on the spice for my taste. Granted I shouldn't hold the Sindhi community to my taste prejudices. The lemon rice we ordered as an accompaniment was decent, but not as flavorful as the version served by some of the Curry Hill South Indian restaurants. Overall, I'd say one can eat at least as well, and for less money, at Cafe Spice, which is under the same management as Dawat and also features a multiregional menu. When Dawat first opened they were the only multiregional Indian restaurant in town. There is now too much competition for them to rest on their laurels.
If Dawat was unexceptional, the following week's dinner at Devi more than made up for it. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better Indian meal I've had in North America. I admit I was a little skeptical about Devi. First of all, I find ultra-high-end Indian all too often disappointing–even when it's good it's rarely that good. And the bold, dare I say fusiony, menu descriptions of some of the dishes were also cause for alarm. My fears were thoroughly quelled by the meal as well as the friendly and unpretentious, but utterly professional, service.
The menu is multiregional Indian with a deft and subtle addition of some European elements. The dishes, thankfully, never lose their essential Indian character. The cuisine is billed as "home cooking," but the only way to come to grips with that claim is to remember that amidst all the poverty of India there are some very rich people, and they eat at home too. The restaurant features two executive chefs, 33-year-old wunderkind Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur, who boast a string of successes at restaurants in India, Berlin and New York.
The Restaurant Week menu gave no cause for complaint. Five appetizers, six main courses and two desserts were offered, including some of the restaurant's most interesting signature dishes. My friend and I shared appetizers and main courses and tasted each other's desserts.
The salmon-crab croquettes with green chile pickle chutney were tasty, moderately spiced, and had a nice, creamy consistency, but they were eclipsed by the rest of the dishes. The other appetizer, tandoori chicken filet stuffed with minced lamb and goat cheese was brilliant. The goat cheese (something I don't usually care for) was far from overwhelming, and the spicing of the lamb stuffing was reminiscent of a cross between a good Moroccan merquez, Indian seekh kebab, and Italian sausage. It was served atop a very fresh, fragrant tomato sauce.
Both main courses were stellar. The coconut shrimp curry was made with enormous, incredibly flavorful Sri Lankan tiger prawns, which appear to have been tandoor-grilled (I learned their country of origin by grilling the waiter). I have previously tasted tiger prawns of that quality in Kerala and Macau, but never in New York. I liked the tangy, mildly spicy sauce very much. As good as the prawns were, they were outdone by the amazingly tender and delicious tandoor-grilled Jamison Farm loin lamb chops, served with pear chutney and curry leaf potatoes. The potatoes themselves are quite praiseworthy, with a complex flavor resulting from the marriage of fragrant curry leaves and perfectly roasted chiles that add a toasty, nutty, spiciness.
Bread was not included with the prix-fixe, so we ordered the lamb and pecorino kulcha. It was one of those culinary gambits that could have been a disaster, but it turned out to be a resounding success.
My friend Donna ended up with the better dessert, the pistachio kulfi with pistachio brittle and citrus sorbet. Here the term "sorbet" is used in its ancient sense of a sweet, cold fruit soup. The tartness of the citrus was an ingenious conterpart-antidote to the sweetness and richness of the kulfi. The kulfi itself was molded into a delightful little pyramid. My dessert was a bit too sweet for my taste, though not overly sweet by Indian standards. It was called Emperor's Morsel and described as crispy saffron bread pudding, cardamom cream, candied almonds. It sounded great on paper.
Will I return to Devi? It's a no-brainer.