Wednesday, August 30, 2006


In my childhood I was a hypochondriac, a psychosomatic wreck. I always had some complaint or other, and my family called me "the boy who cried wolf."

One Sunday afternoon, when I was about ten, I began to feel chest pains. "Call a doctor," I screamed, "I'm having a heart attack." But my mother told me to calm down, that it would go away. It didn't go away, and within an hour my hands, feet and face had blown up to twice their size. My face was flushed and I had broken out in hives all over my body. I was a grotesque apparition. So the doctor was called after all. When he came he gave me injection and explained that I was having an extreme allergic reaction. Had I eaten anything new that day? We thought about it and remembered that at breakfast I had tried sable (smoked black cod) for the first time. It must have been the sable. At any rate, the injection worked and I was back to normal later that evening. My mother rewarded me by telling me I could stay home from school the next day.

One Sunday, a year or two later, I was feeling especially anxious and apprehensive about returning to school after the weekend. I always hated school, but this particular time there must have been something especially frightening, perhaps an oral presentation, or a dance festival. So that afternoon, while I was home alone, I went out to the local “appetizing” store, the Bagel N' Lox, and spent my allowance on a quarter pound of sable and an onion bagel. I rushed home and made a sandwich. I stared at it for several minutes. My heart started beating faster in anticipation. I picked it up several times only to put it back down. Finally, closing my eyes, I picked the sandwich up again and ate it quickly, in several big bites. All day I sat around nervously, waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened.

I went to school the next day. I don't remember what transpired, but whatever it was I seem to have survived it, and now sable is one of my favorite foods.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

My Life of Crime

Since I'm on a roll with memories of the old neighborhood, here's another one along with a plug for a good cause.

"My Life of Crime" was first published last year in the anthology Guys Write for Guys Read. The book was edited by my old friend Jon Scieszka and all proceeds go to support his admirable project to encourage boys' literacy, Guys Read. Check out the Guys Read website and buy a copy of the book.

When I was ten years old I was involved in organized crime. Not the Mafia. Nothing like that. We didn’t kill anyone or break any legs. It was a shoplifting ring.

It was a local operation, in my neighborhood, in Brooklyn, New York. I lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood–not a high-crime neighborhood at all. The residents were mostly Jewish and Catholic (Irish and Italian), but back then, in the mid-sixties, the Jews and the Catholics in my neighborhood didn’t mix too much, so I hung out with a mostly Jewish crowd.

Many of us had already been shoplifting from the local candy stores and supermarkets, and at one point a bunch of us decided to band together, to combine forces, figuring there was strength, and efficiency, in numbers. Some of the kids felt we needed a ringleader, but others, myself included, felt that it should be one for all and all for one. The majority were in the ringleader camp, but when it came time for a vote nobody could agree on a leader. So it was decided that a ringleader would be recruited from outside the group, and that the candidate must have particularly strong credentials.

To many of the kids that meant only one person–the notorious Butch Goldstein, Jewish thug. Butch was fourteen and his résumé was impressive: he had beaten up numerous kids, talked back to grownups for years, killed the pets of several of his enemies, and stolen more than the rest of us put together. I neither liked nor trusted Butch and I felt that to make him ringleader would be a dangerous move, but apparently most of the others believed there was indeed honor among thieves.

Well, Butch certainly got us organized. No longer would there be haphazard shoplifting; now we'd have teams, and shifts. Butch called the shots. He told us what to steal, and how much of it. He gave us pointers on technique. Two or three kids would go into Janoff's candy store, or Fred and Rudy's, and while one kid acted as a decoy, ordering a malted or an egg cream to occupy the attention of the man behind the counter, the others would carefully slide packs of gum, boxes of Jujubes and Dots and Junior Mints into their pockets. We had several large cartons to store the candy in, hidden in the basement of the apartment building I lived in. The idea, so Butch told us, was that we'd collect the stuff for a month or two, and then it would be doled out equally. That way, he said, it would be really special when we finally split up the booty–we could have a big party. It sounded like a good idea, but several days before the candy was to be divvied up, a couple of the kids went to the basement to deposit their take for the day and discovered that the cartons were missing. They called a meeting, rank and file, without Butch. We all agreed that Butch and only Butch could be responsible for such a dastardly deed, but when we confronted him he played dumb. He said the candy must have been stolen by some Catholic kids who had gotten wind of our shoplifting ring.

This betrayal cured most of us of our criminal inclinations, and the shoplifting ring broke up. I think most of us have gone on to lead pretty honest, law-abiding lives.

As for Butch, the last I heard he was arrested somewhere in Texas for passing bad checks. I must confess that I have changed his name here because I'm still afraid of him, nearly forty years later.

Monday, August 21, 2006


It has come to my attention that many readers of this blog are unaware of the subscription option.

If you'd like to receive email notifications of updates to Word of Mouth, it's as easy as pie (and much easier than one of Di Fara's pies). The subscribe button is on the right-hand column. Scroll down until you see "Notify me of updates!" Enter your email address and click the button; you'll be taken to the Feedblitz page, where you can complete the subscription. Then you'll receive an email with a link every time there's a new post. No longer will you be an object of ridicule at dinner parties because you've fallen behind in your Word of Mouth reading.

Two downloadable Cherches stories (not about food)

PDF files of two of my short stories from North American Review are now available for download. They're two of my personal favorites.

Note: these files are no longer available as of March 7, 2007


Friday, August 18, 2006

The Old Neighborhood

After I left Di Fara's I took a walk around the neighborhood. I went to my old block. I looked at the old apartment building. Oddly, I felt nothing—no emotions, no connection—which may be a good thing. On the way back to the subway I went by my elementary school, P.S. 217, in what is now a largely Pakistani neighborhood. I was happy to see that the grim, concrete schoolyard had recently been transformed into a pleasant, colorful playground.

The last time I had been to the neighborhood was at least fifteen years ago, even though I don't live so far away. I wrote an account of that visit at the time, but before the narcissist-friendly blogging era had arrived there was no place to publish it. Now there is.

* * *

Patti wanted to see where I grew up, so I told her I'd take her on a walking tour of the old neighborhood. I hadn't been back for some years. One side of me was glad for the opportunity to go back and tell tales of my Brooklyn youth to someone from a foreign culture (Patti is a WASP from rural Pennsylvania), but another side of me was petrified—I had a miserable childhood, some horrible memories, and now I was returning to the scene of the crime. Oh well, I thought, at worst it will be a therapeutic experience.

We took the D train to Newkirk. We walked down to Coney Island Avenue and I showed Patti my grade school, P.S. 217. Then we walked toward Avenue H.

I told Patti about some colorful characters from the neighborhood. I told her about the guy who slept all day and rode the D train all night, and who once had a job as a commission salesman on the graveyard shift at an all-night men's clothing store—Dennison Clothes: "Money talks, nobody walks." I told her about the fat guy who went off the deep end, picked up a rifle and started taking pot shots out his window on Avenue H. And I told her about the guy who had become a psychologist and was arrested for sodomizing his patients at Creedmoor.

Kirschenbaum's funeral parlor was still at the corner of Avenue H and Coney Island Avenue. I remember hearing, when I was a kid, that Kirschenbaum was related to one of the Americans—one of Jay and the Americans, that is, and when you're a kid in the 'sixties that kind of connection is very exciting. Equally exciting was the news that Mary Tyler Moore had attended the local Catholic school, St. Rose of Lima. We all pronounced Lima like the bean.

Patti and I walked down Avenue H to my block, East 9th Street. I lived near the dead end, by the freight tracks. I looked down the street. The distance to the dead end seemed much shorter than I remembered.

We walked down the street. My heart started beating faster. Would I run into anybody I knew?

We got to my building.

We stood outside and stared at the entrance.

"Let's go in," Patti said."

I don't know," I said. "What if we ran into somebody I know?"

"What would be so bad about that?" she asked.

"I might have to talk to them."

I finally decided to go in.

We read the directory. At a least a third of the names were familiar, people who had been there since my childhood, some of them for more than fifty years—nobody gives up a rent-controlled apartment. Ocasio, the super, was still there. Browner and Kurland were still there. Forman was still there. And Fergo was still there. Fergo, arch enemy of all the kids on the block. Her name was Josephine Fergo, but to us she was just plain Fergo. She was an old Italian woman who dyed her hair red and wore lots of makeup. She used to scream at us when we played ball near her window. We screamed back. Sometimes she would throw hot water on an especially persistent kid. Fergo was a witch.

Fergo used to terrorize her husband, John. They would fight every Saturday morning, and he would spend the rest of the day in a lawn chair in front of the building, sulking. My mother told me that Fergo was a neat freak and that John had to take all his meals over the sink. We usually avoided Fergo's apartment on Halloween, but one year we decided to give her a try. Fergo gave each and every one of us one walnut, in the shell.

Patti and I left the building and started walking down the block. About halfway between the dead end and Avenue H we passed an old woman with dyed red hair. I looked at her. Did she recognize me? As soon as the woman was safely past us I said to Patti, in a stage whisper, "That was Fergo!"

The Fergo incident really impressed Patti. That evening we were dining at a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach and Patti kept repeating, "What a day. What a day. We saw Fergo!"

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Back to Di Fara

I was never a regular reader of food blogs, bulletin boards or columns until I started writing Word of Mouth earlier this year. One of my greatest surprises when I did start following what other foodies were talking about, especially via Chowhound, was that a pizza place (that's the traditional, official New York term for "pizzeria") from my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Di Fara's, had achieved legendary status among pizza cognoscenti. Now the last time I had eaten at Di Fara's was probably in 1978, the year I left the old neighborhood, Midwood. Back then it was a good, solid, by-the-slice neighborhood pizza place, but I don't remember it being remarkable. So I wondered what all the fuss was about. And I'm talking fuss. At times the Di Fara devotees come across like a weird religious cult.

What I eventually pieced together, through Chowhound and coverage in other media, like the excellent pizza blog Slice, is that some time in the '80s Di Fara's owner, Dom DeMarco, who opened the place in 1964, got pizza religion and started devoting an almost obsessive artisanal attention to his pies, switching to quality imported ingredients unheard of in most neighborhood pizzerias. I was able to glean from the gospels that Dom achieved pizza divinity by about 1990, and that he continues to tinker with his recipes. Dom, however, plied his trade in relative obscurity until the internet revolutionized the nature of "word of mouth." Some give Chowhound's founder Jim Leff much of the credit, citing a 1997 kvell that caused an avalanche.

As far as the name is concerned, there was never a Mr. Di Fara. Two years ago Dom told the New York Times, "When I opened the store, my partner's name was Farina. My name is DeMarco. So when the lawyer made the paper, he put the two names together. Di Fara. Di for me, and Fara for him. I bought my partner out in 1978, I think." It appears that Farina and I left the neighborhood at about the same time.

As far as the recipe is concerned, Slice's Adam Kuban writes, "Mr. DeMarco uses a combination of fresh and canned San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce, which he makes daily—sometimes several times a day, from what we understand. Then there's the cheese: a combination of high-quality regular mozzarella, fresh buffalo mozzarella that he imports from Italy, and a dusting of sharp, slightly nutty-tasting grana padana. All this goodness sits atop a thin crust that Dom somehow coaxes to near-coal-oven crispness." There's also the extra-virgin olive oil.

Now the corner of Avenue J and East 15th Street in my old neighborhood is a major foodie destination. A once-quiet neighborhood pizzeria has become a constantly busy pilgrimage site. And as with any pilgrimage worthy of the name, there are trials to endure.

The long waits at Di Fara's are legendary, with forty-five minutes for a slice being perhaps the most cited average. A number of factors account for the long wait: Dom's care and precision; the fact that he and he alone makes all the pizzas, from start to finish; the fact that all the pies are freshly baked (i.e., no cold pizzas waiting to be reheated); the fact that only one level of the oven (your basic convection oven, by the way), the one closest to the flame, is used to bake the pies, meaning that there is room for only two at a time; and, of course, the incredible popularity of the place. Another factor is that at times, apparently, Dom works alone, with no help to take orders or money from the patrons, or to grate cheese, or to fill the olive oil decanters.

Dizzy from the buzz, I figured I had to give Di Fara's a try, even though returning to my old neighborhood always gives me the creeps. Given my mistrust of all religions and mass movements, I was skeptical. I was sure Di Fara's couldn't live up to its reputation. I was also reluctant to wait in an interminable line for a couple of slices of pizza, so I put off my visit until I could get there at an "off hour," or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. On Friday, August 4 I left the office early and headed out to Midwood on the Q Train. I got to Di Fara's at about 3:15 PM. It looked exactly the same as it had in the 70s—same crude, hand-painted sign, same grungy interior, same oven, I'm pretty sure, which looked like it had seen active battlefield duty. The only thing different was the fact there were articles, tributes and awards hanging all over the walls.

There were about three or four other patrons in the shop. I gave my order to Dom's daughter, whose assistance helps things, in a small way, to run more smoothly. I ordered one regular slice with artichokes, a house specialty, and one square slice. In less than five minutes a round pie came out. Dom's daughter spooned the sauteed artichoke hearts onto my slice. I brought it over to a table, along with my can of Limonata, and dug in.

Yes, it was good. It was very good. But was it transcendent? No. It was a very good slice of pizza, and the thin, dense, nutty crust was very impressive. Still, I wondered, is that all there is? Has buzz and momentum caused people to come from all corners of New York, not to mention the world, and wait in long lines for a non-transcendent, very good slice of pizza?

I finished the slice. There was no square pie in sight. I waited. People came and went, some for slices, some for whole pies to go. At about ten to four there was still no square pie in sight. A regular pie had just come out and, miraculously, there were still a couple of slices left after all the pre-orders were taken care of. I decided to claim one, to eat while I waited for my square. I ate it. It was very good, just like the last one. Still, I wasn't convinced it was worth all the trouble.

By 4 PM I had been there 45 minutes and still no square. So my quick, early slice was really part of the test. I now had endured the famous Di Fara 45-minute wait, wanting to try both types of pie, but I also had the option of leaving, relatively sated, and being able to say I had made the pilgrimmage. That just wouldn't do. I was determined to try a square. I figured I had waited 28 years to go back; a couple of more minutes wouldn't kill me.

There was no square because Dom kept putting regular pies in the oven and hadn't started on a square in all the time I'd been there. Then some people came in and ordered a square pie to go. Dom's daughter asked him, "Are you going to do a square next? There are people waiting for slices, and there's another one to go." Dom kept working on round pies, and every five minutes his daughter reminded him that people were waiting for squares.

I started talking to some of the people who were waiting. A couple of guys who had been there almost as long as me were also waiting for square slices. One lived in Manhattan, but his friend was visiting from Dublin. The guy who had ordered the square pie to go, a former Brooklynite, had driven from Long Island with his teenage daughter. After Di Fara's they were off to Coney Island. I have no idea where they planned to eat their pizza.

Finally, at close to 4:30, Dom got the message and started working on a square pie. The crusts for the square pies are now partially pre-baked, apparently a recent change that keeps them from tying up the oven too long. Dom lifted the crust from the pan and poured a copious quantity of extra-virgin olive oil under it. Then he added the sauce and cheeses on top. Then it went in the oven. By this time I had been there for about an hour and fifteen minutes—during off-peak.

In a very hot oven, with the crust mostly pre-baked, it doesn't take too long to cook a square pie, once Dom gets around to it, that is. Dom's daughter served me my slice and I took it back to the table. It was oily and messy, so I used a fork and knife on it. I took a bite.

It was transcendent. It was unique. It was delicious.

Now for a disclaimer. While I like pizza, I'm not a pizza fanatic. I've enjoyed pizzas in Italy, but I don't tend to order them too often when I'm there. I also prefer Turkish pides and Alsatian tartes flambées to pizza. Still, as far as pizza goes, I can't think of any I've had that was better than the square slice at Di Fara. The major difference between the two kinds of pie is apparently the sauce. For the square Dom uses a sauce that has been simmered with prosciutto or pancetta. I think it is the heartiness of this sauce, along with the way the cheeses marry on top of it that perhaps makes the noticeable difference. In addition, Dom added fresh basil to the square slices, which gave another dimension to the flavor.

So now I'm a Di Fara's true believer, but a sectarian of the square. Nonetheless, It might be some time before I go back. Like I said, I'm not a pizza fanatic—just a humble pilgrim.

Haiku Version

DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 07, 2006

Bites, July 2006

Well, I finally had the soft shell crabs at Great NY Noodletown. As I mentioned before, they have long been reputed to be the best of breed in Chinatown. Frankly, I was disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps it was an off night. The crabs were big and flavorful, but they were a more than a bit greasy. My experience with the mixed salt baked seafood at my prior visit had led me to expect better. Also, I was very surprised that they were served whole, rather than cut in more wieldy halves as is the practice at most other Chinatown seafood restaurants. To date, the best soft shell crabs I've ever had were at the now-defunct Sun Golden Island, also in Chinatown. The highlight of my meal at Noodletown, actually, was the baby bok choi, one of the great green vegetables of the world when prepared properly.

* * *

When I was a kid there was Italian food. Italian food meant red-sauce Southern-style cooking. There was also "Northern Italian food," but it was a rarity. If there were restaurants specializing in local or regional cuisines, I didn't know about them. There's hardly an Italian regional cuisine that's not available in New York now. There are plenty of Tuscan places, Sicilian, Roman, Sardinian, Pugliese, Venetian, etc. Le Zie, in Chelsea, is Venetian. I found out about the restaurant when I was researching Roberto Passon, whom I've written about earlier. I believe Passon, a Venetian, was the original executive chef at Le Zie. The food at Le Zie is very good and the prices are amazingly reasonable. My friend Joanna (who has a very quotable namesake) and I shared the cicchetti sampler appetizer and one main course, correctly assuming that the appetizer would be rather large. Cicchetti is the Venetian version of tapas that I first discovered not in Venice but at the excellent San Francisco ciccheteria, Pesce. I believe cicchetti are usually ordered individually, but Le Zie offers instead a cornucopia of 12 items for only $17.95:

"CICCHETTI" (Venetian Sampling)

Stuffed Fried Olives, Eggplant al "Funghetto", Marinated Zucchini, Beans and Onion, Cod Mousse, Shrimp Cakes, Sardines in "Saor", Octopus with Celery, White Baits in Ceviche, Meat Balls, Chickpea Salad Served with White and Yellow Grilled Polenta

The cod mousse, sardines, and whitebait (alici) were especially good. The chickpeas had a nice accent of lemon zest, and the zucchini was enlivened by mint.

For the main course we shared one of the daily fish specials, a whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) roasted in a salt crust, a traditional Venetian preparation. The salt casing seals in the juices and the result is an amazingly flavorful, delicate serving of fish. The fish is cooked with the scales on, which keeps the salt from permeating the flesh. In essence, the fish steams in its own juices. At Le Zie the fish was served fileted, accompanied by spinach and potatoes. I'd had fish prepared this way once before, at Brooklyn's stellar Al Di La. While Le Zie may not be in the same league as Al Di La, the bargain basement prices and the fact that it's much easier to get into (though neither take reservations) insure that I'll be returning.

* * *

One of my favorite lunch and after-work early dinner spots is Menchanko-Tei, a Japanese noodle shop. Their namesake menchanko is an iron-pot noodle casserole that features a large cast of guest ingredients, but my favorite hot noodle dish is the Hakata ramen, served in a luxurious pork bone broth. Both are specialties of Fukuoka, the largest city on the Japanese island of Kysuhu; modern Fukuoka incorporates the old port city of Hakata. Menchanko-Tei also offers a wide selection of oden, small boiled items ordered a la carte and served in a bowl of hot broth; the takara bukuro, a "treasure pouch" made of fried tofu and stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and other goodies, is especially nice. On a hot summer day, however, there's nothing more refreshing than their hiyashi chuka, the classic Japanese cold noodle dish. The version at Menchanko-Tei features perfectly chewy ramen in a chilled soy and vinegar-based broth, topped with sliced chicken, shitake mushrooms, shredded omelet, lettuce, cucumber, pickled ginger and toasted nori seaweed. Add a little mustard to the broth, slurp, enjoy.

* * *

A long overdue lunch date with Steve Smith* brought me to Tulcingo del Valle, a Mexican restaurant on 10th Avenue.

The New York Mexican community is overwhelmingly Poblano, i.e., from the state of Puebla. Tulcingo del Valle is the name of a town in Puebla that many Mexican New Yorkers hail from. In fact, it is estimated that the number of Tulcingo natives in New York equals the number still back home, with lots of back and forth making this small Mexican town a New York suburb of sorts.

The restaurant is an outgrowth of the Mexican deli-grocery next door. Their tacos and tortas became so popular (by word of mouth, of course) that the owners opened the sit-down restaurant a couple of years ago.

My adobo de puerco, was amazing: pork ribs stewed in a red chile sauce with a spicing that was wonderfully complex. Clearly the spices were freshly ground and combined with the alchemy of a Mexican abuela. The ever-so-slight sweet-sour finish made it, in a way, closer in flavor to a true Goan vindaloo than the vindaloos served at most NY Indian restaurants. The accompanying refritos, topped with some delicious sharp, crumbly cotija cheese, were excellent too. The Jamaica (hibiscus drink) was not overly sweet, as can sometimes be the case. I dipped my tortilla in Steve's pipian (pumpkin seed sauce, served with chicken), and that was quite good too, though it didn't cause dish envy. There are a number of Poblano places in Brooklyn, but none I've tried can rival Tulcingo de Valle.

* In addition to Steve's steady gig at Time Out New York, he has recently become a busy classical music stringer for the New York Times. Way to go, Steve!

* * *

I have recently fallen head-over-heels in love with several products from Les Trois Petits Cochons. The company is perhaps the premier maker of French-style charcuterie in the U.S., their all-natural pâtés and terrines enjoying wide distribution. They also cater to my wurst instincts with several world-class sausages. The saucisson a l'ail, a cold Parisian-style garlic sausage made with pork, chablis, and spices, is positively addictive, with a delightfully soft, moderately fat-speckled texture that is at once seductively buttery and earthily grainy. Almost equally delicious, and less of a coronary risk, is the turkey sausage with wild mushrooms and Cognac, low enough in fat to require they be fried with a touch of oil. Vive Les Trois Petits Cochons!

New York Noodle Town on UrbanspoonLe Zie on Urbanspoon
Menchanko-Tei on UrbanspoonTulcingo Del Valle on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Restaurant Week 2006 – Part II, Two Indian Dinners

Indian food being a contender for my favorite cuisine, I jumped at the Restaurant Week opportunity to visit two upscale Indian places.

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 disappointingeven 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.

Devi on UrbanspoonDawat on Urbanspoon