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Tamarind Tribeca Upscales the Tandoor

Tabla and Devi get a little company

A sprawling menu does not always inspire confidence. Imagine a North American restaurant that serves clam chowder, Texas barbecue brisket, Cincinnati spaghetti chile, poutine, tacos, and deep-dish pizza. Unless you're at Shopsin's, it's probably not a good idea.

But think of an upscale, South Asian Shopsin's—minus the attitude—and that's Tamarind Tribeca. The new restaurant's menu mercifully skips many ubiquitous North Indian dishes (although it caves to chicken tikka masala), in favor of regional dishes from every part of the subcontinent. Some of them are relatively obscure to American audiences—sweet Afghani naan, spicy Marathi chicken, Kashmiri pulao, Keralan chicken with coconut milk and curry leaves.

The big surprise is how good Tamarind Tribeca manages to be as it cooks across thousands of miles. The manager, Gurpreet Walia, says that the restaurant does not employ one executive chef, instead using a team of chefs from various parts of India. And the unusual strategy seems to be working.

These gentlemen bring you the subcontinent.
Amelia Beamish
These gentlemen bring you the subcontinent.

Just down the street from Nobu on Hudson Street, the restaurant yawns cavernously—pretty, in a corporate sort of way—all white and gold with smooth blond wood, floor-to-ceiling columns, sprays of orange orchids, and a rather dated-looking wall of wine. Walk in and sit at the marble bar along with fellow eaters in expensive haircuts and crisp white shirts. (If you thought lychee martinis had gone the way of moderate Republicans, you were wrong.) In the dining room, cushy booths are separated by white chiffon curtains, and giant beige lighting sconces dangle from the ceiling, bedazzled with hanging gold beads. A second level of seating looks down from a balcony on one side of the room. Tables are dressed formally with white, knee-length tablecloths and silver chargers emblazoned with the restaurant's name.

There's nothing that irks me more than paying a premium for a fancy setting when the food is no better than any cheap neighborhood place. (Ahem, At Vermilion.) But I'd love to see more legit Indian fine-dining restaurants—places that are not necessarily better than the best down-home spots, but that show subcontinental cooking from a different perspective. (No one ever argues that the great cheap French joint cancels out the need for upscale French restaurants, but how often have you heard the phrase "expensive for Indian food"?) The complexity and diversity of Indian food lend it to the flourishes and inventions of fine dining, but there are very few places in New York smartly experimenting with it in an elevated way—only Tabla and Devi come to mind. Now we can add Tamarind Tribeca to that roster, although it's not quite the other two's equal.

The venison, for instance, is excellent: Three fat chops emerge hot from the tandoor, utterly tender, their lean beefiness enhanced by a marinade of tart pickling spices and yogurt, and given nuttiness by roasted chickpea flour. Deer—and pickled venison—was once commonly eaten in much of India, but now some species are protected. (Last year, the Times of India reported on illegal deer poaching: "Patrons of some hotels in south and central Kolkata are ready to pay any price for deer meat delicacies.") Tamarind's venison is a smart dish, rooted in tradition but not slave to it, and, more importantly, completely delicious.

Similarly, raan e dumpukht, a northern-style lamb shank preparation, departs from tradition by using Indian rum in the braise. ("Dumpukht" is a cooking method popularized by the 16th-century Moghuls that involves sealing a pot closed with dough and cooking it slowly.) The stew oozes—surpassingly rich, the meat just clinging to the bone, the sauce a luscious mess of caramelized onions and cashew nuts, warmly spiced with nutmeg and saffron.

Choose a few of the best poultry dishes and take a taste journey from Pakistan down to Kerala, in India. Starting in the north, the pastooni murgh is one of the restaurant's most interesting and flavorful dishes. The menu translates it as a roulade, although that's not quite right. It's actually more like a terrine—finely ground chicken mixed with aromatic spices, formed into cylinders, gently cooked, then cut into neat slices. Dredge each bite in its creamy sauce of puréed pistachios and cashews with a haunting floral-hot savor imparted by rose petals and saffron.

Maharashtra, the western coastal state that contains Mumbai, is represented by a chile-heavy chicken stew in crimson gravy that makes for a simple, piquant feed with whole-wheat roti. Southern states like Goa and Kerala have a penchant for duck, which shows up in a sizable appetizer, the mustard-seed-studded meat wrapped in a crepe. It resembles a giant spring roll, tasty enough, although the tangerine chutney on the side is far too sugary.

Vegetarians can eat extremely well here. All the tandoor-cooked breads—from the honeyed Afghani naan filled with pistachios and dry milk, to the flaky laccha paratha, to the odd broccoli and paneer naan—are meatless, as are many of the appetizers and a good number of the mains. Yam kebabs, made from a mash of the root vegetable plus paneer, potatoes, and red chilies, look like giant orange tadpoles—charred from the fire and completely wonderful. Of the entrées, look for the southern-style vegetable stew called kaikarie isteu, a potage of eggplant, pumpkin, and okra fattened with coconut milk and zested with curry leaves and chilies.

Then again, disappointing dishes crop up. Galouti kebab, the ultra-tender lamb kebab apocryphally created for a toothless viceroy, is more lush and flavorful at Bhatti Indian Grill on Lexington. And the Hyderabadi lamb is as heavy and muddy-tasting as at any underachieving curry-slinger.

But for the most part, Tamarind Tribeca's unknown team of chefs is turning out extremely enjoyable, sometimes terrific, dishes. One chef is less anonymous than the others—that's the tall, imposing fellow with a well-trimmed goatee and a distinguished nose who monitors the roaring tandoor. His station is surrounded by glass on three sides so that diners can watch him deftly work the giant skewers. A serious man for some serious food.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com

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