My travels took me to some new ones, and some old favorites. One of the new ones was Vong, the much reviewed restaurant from celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chain of restaurants. It's hidden away under the lipstick building, and is populated entirely by Bangladeshi waiters, which made life much easier for us.
I seem to be having French-Asian everywhere nowadays; cream sauces dusted with exotic spices and presented brilliantly. The interesting part is how they convert Asian street foods or communal serving to the plated paradigm, where each person gets a plate all his own all beautifully laid and not to be touched. Plated food always puts me in a bit of a tizzy. I have two worries; one is - am I supposed to eat all those things that make it look pretty? Do you put all of them in your mouth together (the perfect bite) or are there combinations that the French are born with and others have to learn. The scond worry is, how do I get seconds of what I like?
Anyway, Vong was firmly in the plated school but starters came with a twist. The sauces were plated, while the spring rolls and lobster somethings were in a large platter in the middle. Wonderful sauces, and probably the main reason my mother gave it the highest rating of all the places visited.
Tamarind was the fancy Indian alternative, also attached to a celebrity chef (albeit a dead one). Given that most executive chefs dont actually cook (I'm sure Mr.Vongerichten didn't plate those sauces himself) a dead chef here and there should not make that much of a difference. The current chef is Sujit Bose, a non-celeb Bengali who lived in Delhi. The food was satisfying, but was not quite as outstanding as hoped. Interestingly enough, the kitchen sent it out plated french style but the servers served it Indian style (serving a bit of every dish to each diner on a seperate plate). This wasn't so bad - it saved us from reaching shamelessly across the table with our forks but destroyed (before we could see it) the fancy presentations.
Tamarind brings out an interesting aspect of Indian food. It's 'authentic' enough (whetever that means) but defnitely the view from the South (which was fairly disappointing given that the menu leans heavily to the North). My mother likes the dry aromatic biriyani; this one was distinctly the kind that comes out of Bangalore or Chennai. Even more strange, the menu insisted that Fish Moilly was a speciality from Chennai (much to the consternation of Keralites everywhere I'm sure). And, it had Lamb Vindaloo which seems to be the curse of every Indian restaurant outside India.
So Tamarind advertises a (dead) south-Indian celebrity chef who lived in America and originally learned French cooking. At the same time it offers a primarily north-Indian menu with bits of Goa thrown in, which makes for a very confused Indian food experience. I can heartily recommend it for play-it-safe corporate dinners where the (very nice) atmosphere and nicely priced wines are important, but as a food destination Tabla is defnitely better.
Last week, this foodie friend of mine suggested that we try sampling fare at restaurants/bars named after their addresses. I found the idea intriguing but we got drawn to the Osteria Gelsi fish (which was very very good), so today, when another friend came to the city from India I decided to try this place called 44 SW in Hell's Kitchen. It said ristorante and the menu outside seemed to have antipasti and insalata - so we walked in assuming they would have the usual entrees on the menu. The place turned out to be full of disappointments. First, they did not have half the wines on their list. The list itself was kind of sparse and uninformative. The pretty stewardess recommended something that turned out to be rather bland. More chicken than fish in an italian restaurant sounded like bad news. No stand-alone seafood, so i went for shrimp with garlic and herbs with linguini, and that was bad news too. Oh, and the calamari fritti we ordered for starters was very also-ran, kind of onion-ringish if you know what I mean. And finally, the espresso tasted weird. All in all, a great evening almost destroyed by a mediocre menu. South West was all south. No more address-christened restaurants for me. All in all
While Masoor starts life as pink, a little persuasion by hot water quickly converts it to a pale yellow. It's color makes it the easiest dal to recognise but people usually see the prepared version and go looking for a yellow dal. Bengalis use it a lot by itself while most other communities mix it with other dals. A light dal, it does not stand up well to heavy masalas.
Here's my favorite recipe for it, which goes wonderfully well with spicy pickles and crunchy fries.
I'm eventually going to write an introduction to the dals - and there are a surprising variety of varieties. People get confused by which dal is what - even Indians. Identifying the dals by sight is not simple; that is traditionally the first test of a Bengali housewife (and it seems both my aunts failed). Luckily, they recovered so when I landed at my aunt's a few days ago the first thing I slurped down was arhar dal - thats the one in the picture below. Try not to confuse it with three other dals that look nearly exactly the same.
The search has come to an end. The best Indian food in the continent is to be found in a strip mall on Red Hill Avenue in Tutsin CA. It's called Dosa Place, and produces dosas that would make most chefs in Chennai sweat. Luckily, its well hidden by Del Taco and Chinese takeouts.
Ok, so its a little bit of a hyperbole. The place isn't the best Indian food but it is - and there's no question about it - the best dosas on the face of the ...ummm... continent. They make a lot of other stuff (including the unavoidable chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo) but stick fairly and squarely to their dosas and come away blessed. I'm not talking "authentic" or "really nice for America". I'm talking real dosas, the kinds that would divert attention from Chennai films and Andhra politics. A real, true brown work of genius.
For those who dont know much about these matters, a dosa is a crepe made from fermented rice-lentil batter. The critical parts of a good dosa are the batter itself (which is all important and somehow very difficult to make) and the sambhar that you dip pieces of it into when eating. It's made in a style very similar to a French crepe; batter spread on the tawa (a flat hot surface) and then folded over. Paper dosa is more complex - its starts out like a regular dosa spread on that tawa, then the chef scrapes away most of the batter leaving just a thin layer. The resulting crepe is paper-thin and very crisp. Paper dosas are very difficult to make - On the rare occassions that I tried my hand they burnt, came out too thick, had holes from the scraping or simply refused to get off the tawa.
I started with some very promising idlis. That's another thing that's available everywhere but very difficult to make really well but no such trouble here. This could tango with the best of the Shanti Sagars in Bangalore. The critical component - the firmly conservative pearl-onion sambhar - also passed with flying colors, though the coconut chutney could be better. I then moved on to the paper masala, which was a four-foot wonder of a crisp. The regular and the mysore variants were excellent too. I've been told the egg is great too, and there's also a rather intriguing jam-n-cheese dosa for ABCD kids which I suspect is better avoided. Prices were quite good at $4-6 per dosa (easily a small meal each). They offer some other Andhra dishes too - I tried the Chapala Pulusu and came away interested but not impressed. It was good (and very very very hot), but not rhapsody-class.