mamster's grub shack - Tabla

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Tabla could very well have been awful--I'm generally uninterested in upscale Indian or fusion food, and Tabla is both. Wise choices by chef Floyd Cardoz and restaurateur-cum-laude Danny Meyer, however, have created a welcoming and delicious restaurant that is one of the best dining experiences I've had in New York.

Laurie and I arrived for lunch at 1:30 and were seated immediately. The Bread Bar, where we sat, is the informal ground-floor dining area of Tabla. The menu is slightly different, and, at lunch, a bit cheaper, though both floors were offering a $19.99 menu for Restaurant Week 1999. The separate drop-in space is a standard Meyer feature, the analogue of the bar at Union Square Cafe and the Tavern at Gramercy.

The restaurant, built in a former office tower space, I think, has picture windows all down its west side with a view of Madison Square Park. (The real estate cost must be staggering, but it doesn't translate into extortionate prices on the menu.) The main dining room is up an ornate flight of stairs, and we were relieved when our fellow Bread Bar proles eating next to us asked if they could take a look upstairs after lunch. We could look up from our seats and see the main restaurant through a circular cutout in the ceiling. It's hard to describe. Behind the bar is the downstairs kitchen, including the tandoori oven.

For Restaurant Week, there were three choices each of appetizers and entrees, and four desserts. Of course, they also gave us the regular menu so we could drool over the things we weren't allowed to order, such as the garlic sourdough naan. The appetizers were lentil soup, a salad (produce from the Union Square Greenmarket, no doubt), and smoked salmon. I ordered the soup and Laurie the salad. She also had a delicious and tangy iced tea that I will order next time.

I had a Coke. I mention this because it leads me to my first of two criticisms: our waiter was not the smartest pan on the stove. First he brought our appetizers to the people next to us who had arrived later but ordered the same thing. Then he brought me another Coke even though I told him not to; of course, the extra Coke ended up comped, and he was very pleasant and well-meaning overall. And for some reason, the faux nehru jackets they've decked the waitstaff out in look quite comfortable.

Our appetizers did arrive promptly enough. The lentil soup was well-spiced with plenty of cumin and ginger and was smooth-textured, little nibbles of basmati rice throughout. They had garnished it with some frizzled curry leaves, which looked nice but were basically tasteless. The soup spices reminded me of the Soup Nazi's mulligatawny, but I like the lentil texture better. With the appetizers we got a small basket of naan wedges, several plain and one interesting pumpernickel version, flecked with caraway seeds. The naan was very good but I would rather have had it served hot.

For entrees, the choices were tandoori hangar steak, baby eggplant, and mussels. In a move that will surprise no one, I had the steak. I will note, however, that in keeping with the Indian theme, Tabla offers far more and more interesting vegetable entrees than most restaurants in its class. No one would confuse me with a vegetarian, but when we go back, I fully intend to order the eggplant-stuffed vidalia onion or the Tabla spiced vegetables. Anyway, back to the steak. Hangar steak, which I don't think I've had before, is known as a very flavorful cut that is difficult to prepare well because it can be tough. This was not tough meat. The tandoori oven left it seared with a rich crust of spices, and they cut it in strips across the grain before serving it. The meat was heavenly. Because the piece of meat tapered at the ends, the cooking was a bit uneven, but it was properly medium rare in the middle and where it was cooked more at the ends, it was the most spicy and crusty, almost like barbecue.

The steak came with some great sauteed wild mushrooms, also crispy in parts. There should have been more of these. Tabla offers wild mushroom fricassee as an entree, and I may have to try it. I also got a pretty boring leafy salad.

The four dessert options were: a sorbet assortment drizzled with mango lassi; two kulfis, which turned out to be a firm, frozen ice cream-like substance formed into a pyramid, with a touch of edible gold leaf on top; and warm chocolate date cake with espresso frozen yogurt. Laurie had a vanilla bean kulfi and in another bold move, I had the chocolate cake. It looked like the individual fallen chocolate cake that many restaurants serve (I had one at Babbo, Mario Batali's latest coup of a restaurant), but the taste and texture were completely different. It was earthy, with coconut and something crunchy on top, and very moist. I know this is a cruel way to describe a dessert, but it had the consistency of meatloaf, enough body to keep a cake-hater like myself happy. The frozen yogurt was nothing like TCBY; apparently they stirred some espresso or ground espresso beans into plain yogurt and froze it. It was tangy and refreshing. The dessert presentation was clean and pleasant, although I kind of missed the acrobatics you get at La Cote Basque. Mango mousse kulfi living in a chocolate hut caught in a caramel rain and surrounded by spears of lemongrass, anyone?

An aside here, since we're almost to the end of the meal. One of the best parts of visiting a fancy restaurant is, of course, checking out the bathrooms. Tabla's are exquisite. The stalls have thick wood lattice doors mounted on noiseless hinges, and George Costanza would be happy to note that the doors extend all the way to the floor. They also have the thick paper towels like at USC.

My other criticism of the restaurant, besides the waiter from Planet Huh?, is that while the food is suffused with glorious combinations of spices, it's never actually hot and spicy. I assume the chef is equally adept with chiles and chile powder and black pepper as he is with cumin, coriander, and turmeric, and I'd like to see him cut loose and burn my tongue. I'll give Cardoz the benefit of the doubt and say it's his authentic expression of his unique culinary vision, but the cynical voice in my head says they're going easy on the hot stuff to sell more wine, of which they have many to choose from by the glass.

We did take our peek upstairs, where the bustle of the Bread Bar is only a whisper from below, and you can dine in relative quiet and take in an even better park view. I wish more fine restaurants were as casual as this one. I wouldn't go in jeans or an Anthrax t-shirt, but beyond that, there is nothing formal about the place, and yet the service (except for Our Favorite Martian, who I'm sure will improve), food, and decor are first-rate.

I was already sold on Tabla, but the real clincher arrived with the check: two envelopes, each containing a gift certificate for $19.99 off our next lunch at Tabla or the Bread Bar. Our drinks were reasonably priced, too (cheaper than the movies, at least). How they can do this I don't know. They are the Fatbrain of restaurants. Dinner is $52 prix fixe, but you can eat practically cheap in the Bread Bar at lunch: many entrees are $17, and that enticing garlic sourdough naan is $3.50. You could also make a meal of appetizers, tapas Indian-style. I suspect they won't take both gift certificates at the same meal, but after today's meal, I want to go back to Tabla twice anyway. [HOME]

June 1999

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