Sometimes I feel not unlike Columbus, an adventurer in search of spices. I add cardamom to my coffee, ras al hanout to my roast lamb, and even throw cubebs into my pepper mill. So of course I was intrigued when Tabla’s opening last year titillated the tastebuds of Gotham’s dining establishment with fusion riffs on the flavors of the subcontinent. But because I wanted to savor the food, not the hype, I decided to wait for the furor to die down. A year later, I was still waiting, unwilling to dine after 9 p.m. or plan my life three weeks in advance. A short-term reservation was simply not to be had.
Finally, looking for a late-evening spot with Khadijah, née Elaine, my Rubenesque homegirl, we called, and voilà—come on down. The place was still bubbling with the packed excitement that signals a hot dining venue. We ascended the stairs to the formal dining area, Elaine huffing at every step, bemoaning the failure of a glorious redesign that allowed for no bad tables, but alas, also no elevator. Her mutterings subsided only with the arrival of the tandoori-style shrimp that started her variation on our $54 prix fixe. She tucked in, trying to analyze the complex spice blend. Soon, though, she was muttering again, this time about the scant two shrimp that constituted her appetizer. I, meanwhile, was delighted by the variety of textures in the mix of spicy leaves that made up my salad. The theme carried over into a salmon entrée zipped up nicely with some mustard greens. Elaine, who’s eaten lamb from Kuwait to Karachi, loved the ineffably complex taste of her few pink slices, which came in waves, with a hit of . . . was that black cardamom? swamped by the next before the ID could be completed. Once again, however, the portion was small. She was placated only by the arrival of a chocolate confection that disappeared as I was spooning up my fez-shaped mound of creamy vanilla-bean kulfi. We left dazzled by the chef, pampered by the staff, and semisated. I just hoped I could visit again.
Three months of telephone torture ensued before I snagged another reservation, this time for late lunch with a voracious English friend whose family calls her “the dustbin.” After we giggled at the over-the-top language on the à la carte menu, she ordered a wild mushroom rasam, a mix of woodsy funghi punctuated with what we thought were golden raisins, and followed it with steel head salmon ($20), observing that the accompanying kokum gastrique sounded like a perfect name for a tipsy cancan dancer. We stopped giggling though when we sampled: The plumlike fruit infused the thick sauce with a tang that kept getting sharper but never stopped complementing the fatty flesh. The curry-leaf marinade of my excellent flank steak ($19) was longer on exoticism than taste. The kulfi ($8) arrived with a flourish of edible gold leaf that I consumed conspicuously before tasting my friend’s sumptuous chocolate-stuffed samosas ($8), which were citrusy with kumquat. Sated for real this time, almost stupefied, we staggered off into the afternoon, twin spice girls with spreading waists and no confidence that we’d ever get into the place again.