Revisit: Bacon Naan and Other Delights at Tabla in Madison Square
The richness and smokiness of the newfangled bacon naan is not to be underestimated.
Seven years ago, when Tabla first opened, I respected the restaurant, but didn't love it. It was too fusion-ey for me. Nevertheless, I noted, "Despite his profound culinary departures from an authentic Indian bill of fare, [chef Floyd] Cardoz always manages to throw subversive and homely Indian elements into his creations."
Tables on the upper level look dramatically through a round aperture to the banking floor below. (See the guy on the left? No real Texan would be impolite enough to wear his cowboy hat indoors.)
He must have partly agreed with me, because soon thereafter, a downstairs "bread bar" was created, dealing in wraps and bread-based dishes like those that have currently become popular in places like Kati Roll. Moreover, the food was aggressively spiced, at a time when many upscale Indian restaurants soft-pedaled the spice level.
Now, Bread Bar has been closed and the entire upstairs and downstairs spaces have been merged into a single restaurant, which incorporates elements of both previous institutions, and manages to represent even more the elegant beauty of Indian cooking.
I ate a dinner there recently with a friend -- and we both loved it. The occasion of our visit was a $25 coupon toward a meal that we got as a result of a Fresh Direct order. It's probably not worth ordering from Fresh Direct, which I actively dislike, but maybe you can cadge one from a friend.
Tabla's premises were once a bank lobby on two levels, and, despite some rather wild and colorful art, it's difficult to dispel the notion that you've just cashed your paycheck downstairs, and are about to enjoy a portion of the proceeds upstairs. I say upstairs, because upstairs is still the best place to sit, even though the greeters will try to steer you downstairs, where some very large men in white coats lurk by an oven, then burst into frenetic activity at various points in the evening. Besides, the downstairs still feels like common seating in a food court.
Though the idea sounds good, the saag paneer pizza looks better than it tastes.
We gravitated toward the most typically Indian stuff, and things that called attention to themselves by their wildness. One such was the bacon naan ($12), which bulges with crumbled and whipped bacon from Nueske's, a well regarded smokehouse in Wittenberg, Wisconsin. (I have a ham, some bacon, and some smoked bratwursts from Nueske's in my freezer right now.)
We washed the food down with a $33 bottle of made-in-India Sula chenin blanc, which was adequate to the fat-cutting tasks, with a lean and brittle structure and some pleasant sharp edges. Not a bad deal!
Even more impressive than the bacon naan (which, let's face it, is so rich two have difficulty finishing one), was the tandoori octopus, which had my date observing, "Why didn't anyone think to cook octopus that way before?" Indeed, the spicy crustiness imparted by the clay oven was a complement to the squishy and rubbery insides of the tentacles.
There was a saag paneer pizza, which was a dandy idea that wasn't impressive enough in the mouth, and a so-called lamb sandwich that was like half a giant wheel-shaped empanada, and delivered a wonderful spice punch that I'm still dreaming about. But perhaps the best dish was a curry from the chef's home region of Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India. The Goan fish curry is one of the best Indian dishes I've ever tried in New York, an orange-colored sauce backed by the strongest of fumets, and cradling a fish collar, served with basmati rice.
The scrumptious and spicy lamb sandwich (left) and Goan fish currey (right), with complimentary rice and raita in the background.
The chef strode up just as we were sopping up the curry with the last of the bacon naan. He'd apparently gotten wind of the fact that we were deploying the coupon, and probably had been asked to specially greet Fresh Direct customers. Seeing us enjoying the Goan fish curry, he proudly noted that he'd learned the recipe from his mother, for whom it was a favorite.
He then asked if we were Fresh Direct customers, and we assured him we were not, causing him to appear somewhat crestfallen. Still, he seemed pleased as we praised the food, and promised to return. 11 Madison Avenue, 212-889-0667
Entire tab, with $25 coupon figured in: $103.43
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