Elettaria: Where Saag Paneer Is 'Saag Paneer'

Elettaria puts chefs onstage, plays with convention, and comes out ahead

I was prepared to have a bad attitude about the "saag paneer." It's listed on Elettaria's menu just like that, in quote marks. Everything's ironic now, even saag paneer? But then the dish arrived: fat, billowy ricotta gnocchi perfumed with fennel seed (the "paneer") in loose, creamy chopped spinach lit up with cloves and chilies. It wasn't saag paneer—it was "saag paneer"—and it was delicious.

Things at Elettaria are not quite as they seem. At first glance, everything about the restaurant seems too pleasantly predictable: the artfully distressed wood-beamed ceiling and floor and exposed-brick walls, the sprays of flowering dogwood branches, the antiqued mirrors, the open kitchen, the wooden bar, with mixologists shaking up cocktails made from the most pristine ingredients, naturally.

But then you squeeze into a table and look at the menu. Where is the sautéed skate with fingerling potatoes and perhaps Berkshire pork two ways with salsify purée?

Elettaria is much more thoughtful than that. There are steamed rice cakes (idli) with lentils alongside lamb sausage with raita, and a stuffed pig's foot with cashews. Salsify is featured, but it's livened with fenugreek; fingerling potatoes are served with a coconut-tapioca sauce. You can get duck two ways, but one of those ways is as kima, a homey ground-meat preparation rarely seen in restaurants. The cocktails avoid fussiness by going the tiki route—mai tai, zombie punch, navy grog—and if you don't like tiki drinks, you're lying.

Despite some flaws, this is a project with a soul; this is someone's vision, not another place with great design and pedigreed chefs cooking what's trendy. That someone is chef Akhtar Nawab, lately of E.U. and Craftbar. At Elettaria, he's finally been given free rein to employ the brilliant flavors of his Indian heritage, resulting in dishes that tweak both New American and Indian culinary conventions.

For a while now, "fusion" has been a bad word, describing the kind of dated cooking that puts ingredients next to each other for the sake of it, rather than because they taste good together. But fusion has also resulted in much of the world's great food (see: Singapore), and when it's done well—as it is at Elettaria—it tinkers with two different traditions and comes up with something new that complements both.

This is true of dishes like the duck two ways, which was a special one night. The duck kima—intensely spiced ground duck studded with sweet golden raisins—was set off by a sliced duck breast, simply seared medium-rare.

Similarly, the steamed rice cakes with lentils, tomato, ginger, and garlic are a nice riff on idli sambar, the South Indian rice cakes usually served with thin, spicy tomato-vegetable soup. Idli have a clean, neutral flavor and are more about texture than anything else; Nawab's rice cakes hit that steamy, spongy moistness just right, and were fantastic dipped in the cumin-spiked lentils.

The kitchen, however, has an unfortunate tendency to oversalt: A slab of fluke served over a coconut-tapioca sauce was nearly ruined by a pinch too much. The "saag paneer" also flirted with crossing the oversalting line.

But the milk doughnuts (a spin on gulab jamun) benefited from a judicious bit of salt, which prevented them from being too sweet. The little fried-dough balls were rich with condensed, caramelized milk and soaked with aromatic rosewater syrup.

Not all of Chef Nawab's Indian references are so overt—some dishes are much more gently seasoned, and draw more on lesser-known subcontinental twists. Roast wild boar was scented with orange and garnished with a slippery little nugget of marrow. At the bottom of the shallow bowl, delicate Indian vermicelli got plumped up as they soaked in the drippings.

A pig's-foot appetizer arrived looking more like a hockey puck than a foot (thank goodness), with the crunchy skin neatly molded around a filling of the shredded meat. A bite is by turns crunchy, meaty, slippery, and sticky. It's a good thing they don't sell these from street carts, or I'd never be able to fit into Elettaria again.

Which brings me to the biggest problem with Elettaria: The tables are incredibly cramped. There should be a sign outside the door: "You must be this thin to enter." I really can't imagine how someone much larger than average would negotiate getting into a seat. There are about six inches between the tables; they have to be pulled out and rearranged every time someone wants to sit down. You can't get up to visit the restroom during dinner without disrupting the meals of everyone around you.

Not only that, but there are three rows of tables, and the two corridors through the middle are so narrow that the servers have to inch down them sideways. The close quarters do make for excellent eavesdropping, but not everyone's as nosy as I am.

Maybe they're trying to pack diners in to make up for the fact that the prices are very fair. Elettaria is not cheap—entrées range from $18 to $25—but they could be charging more.

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