Vatan: An All-You-Can-Eat Cultural Vacation

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — one of the things I love most about food is the way it brings people together. I often get asked about my favorite restaurants, or the best thing I ever ate, and I struggle to come up with answers, because most of my favorite meals are memorable because of the company I had while eating them. I’ll never forget my birthday dinner at Barbuto, because my family was there to pass around plates and encourage me to take a picture with Jonathan Waxman. I’ll always recommend Pike Place to visitors in Seattle because Dan showed me his favorite stalls and forced endless quantities of fresh fruit on me. And amazing as the steak at Peter Luger was, what made it special was the anticipation by the bar with my friends, and the collective moans as we dove headfirst into meaty glory (and that schlag, oh boy).

My recent dinner at Vatan is another perfect example of the joy of sharing a new experience. It reunited most of the Peter Luger crew for another group gorging, this time on vegetarian Indian food, and once again the most memorable thing for me was the happy joking that devolved into studious silence as we got busy stuffing our faces. Is Vatan the best Indian food I’ve ever had? No, it was pretty good but not life-altering. But is it a restaurant I’d recommend? Absolutely, because from the decor to the service, Vatan is about the experience of the meal itself more than the food on your plate. Come in with an empty stomach and some buddies, and you’ll definitely have a great time.

 

First Impressions:

I heard about Vatan from a couple of coworkers in my carpool, who raved about the stomach-stretching piles of Indian food available to you as a prix-fixe, all you can eat dinner for a mere $30. They warned that it would be kitschy, and not to be dissuaded by the “Epcot India” decor. That particular description proved immediately apparent as we approached Vatan. The restaurant sits right on the divide between Curry Hill and the brotown epicentre of Kips Bay/Murray Hill. It’s located on 3rd Avenue, off the main Lexington stretch of Indian restaurants, and just next door is a bar/restaurant featuring an open air rooftop overflowing with drunk twenty-somethings on the warm night we visited. Next to that, it’s hard not to view Vatan’s exterior as over-the-top, featuring a large sign, tiled panels, terracotta awnings, and a large sculpture of an elephant. And that’s got nothing on what it’s like inside.

 

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan - note the painted clouds in the sky.

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan – note the painted clouds in the sky.

Entering the restaurant you’re greeted with two floors of Indian fantasy, from the ceiling painted powder blue and dotted with clouds, to the fake Banyan trees “growing” out of the walls, to thatched-roof enclosures where the dining tables sit. Oh, and don’t forget the giant statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the recessed area of the back wall. We were seated upstairs, under a row of thatched roofs at a Western-style table, but across from us (and downstairs as well), there were a few low tables that required removing your shoes and sitting cross-legged (I was actually a little bummed we didn’t get to sit there).

 

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs, where everyone mugs for the camera.

The staff is dressed in what the back of the menu describes as “ethnic garb and jewelery  … traditionally worn during the festivals and fairs in India,” regardless of ethnic background (most, but not all of the servers appeared to be of Indian descent), and everything (except the surprisingly cheap wine) is served in beaten metal containers. With the exception of dealing with our check (and we were all using credit cards, so it’s not surprising), the service was speedy and responsive, our server taking the time to explain all the dishes and replenish any items we wanted more of. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Vatan’s menu.

 

The Food:

Meals at Vatan are split into three courses — an appetizer thali, entree thali, and dessert and chai. You have the option to order “refills” of any item you encounter, from a second bowl of rice to another full course of appetizers, at any point in the meal (feel like more samosas while drinking your chai, no problem). Thali, which means “plate” in Hindi, refers to the Indian version of a smorgasbord, where a variety of dishes are served all together in small bowls (katori) on a metal tray (the “thali” itself). I had my first thali at the Curry Hill South Indian restaurant Anjappar, which is only a block from Vatan, and highly recommended (although you order a la carte there). This style of service is perfect for someone like me, who loves sampling lots of different dishes. Given the wide variety of foods I encountered at Vatan, it would take far too long to cover each and every item, so I’ll just highlight a few stand-outs.

 

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that's to come.

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that’s to come.

Meal accompaniments -- red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Meal accompaniments — red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Our dinner began with a small bowl of puffed lentil snacks in different shapes and sizes. I suppose you could reorder these as well, but I’d caution against it, given the deluge of vegetarian options coming your way. Upon seeing our appetizer thali, I honestly believed I’d be able to take down several helpings, but all credit to Vatan, these were deceptively filling portions. Along with our thali came the accompaniments for the entire meal, with red and green sauces of different spice levels, raita yogurt sauce, pickled vegetables, and tiny slivers of fried garlic (which I tucked into in full vampire-defense mode).

 

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson:

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson. Clockwise, from top left: Chana Masala, Samosas, Muthia (steamed flour with spinach), Ragda Patis (potato cutlet in white bean sauce), Khaman (puffed cream of wheat flour cakes), Batatavada, Mirchi Bhajia, and Sev Puri.

The appetizer thali was a rectangular steel tray, almost like a fancy TV dinner tray. Our server noted which of the items included would be spicy, to give us a sense of what level of heat to order for our entree. For example, in the middle of the tray were Mirchi Bhajia, “fried hot peppers with Garam Masala,” that certainly lived up to their description. Since I’m determined to improve my resistance to spicy foods, I gamely took a bite of the pepper, at first pleasantly surprised by the snap of the vegetable against the soft fried exterior. Maybe I was actually getting better at this, I briefly contemplated, before the heat exploded in my mouth on the backend. Thankfully, the Sev Puri (potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney filled in a crispy bread) was located just next to the hot pepper, so I could douse my tongue in the cool yogurt. I did end up ordering a second round of one spicy item, the Batatavada (fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter), which I loved dipping into the Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with onions and coriander) and the red chutney. And of course our table opted to get more Samosas (triangular savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and green peas), since it’s hard to resist the allure of crunchy puff pastry with a lightly spiced and creamy interior.

The "entree complements" of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

The “entree complements” of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

Already feeling slightly overstuffed, we were soon faced with the entree thali, this time a circular steel tray like the one I had at Anjappar. Emboldened by my love of the Batatavada, I had opted to go for medium spice over mild, and I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed the small kicks of spice I stumbled upon throughout the course. I may not be downing sriracha left and right like some people I know (coughDianacough), but hopefully I’m making progress towards not trembling in fear of the occasional jalapeno in my food. The entree course also comes with a set of “entree complements” for the table, featuring Pulao (boiled white rice with peas), Kadhi (soup with yogurt and chickpea flour in authentic spices), and one of my favorite items of the whole night, Khichdi (lentils mixed with rice and assorted vegetables). The Khichdi had a texture close to mashed potatoes, softly melting in your  mouth, except for the random bite of a piece of vegetable. Our server suggested pouring a bit of the Kadhi on top of the Khichdi, which upped the richness another several levels, although I think I prefer the lentil-rice on its own. I’m actually tempted to look up a recipe and see if I can make it at home — although Vatan is vegetarian, I could see this going great with a roast chicken or steak.

 

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali.

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali. Clockwise, from top left: Chole (chickpeas cooked with tamarind and garam masala), Ful-Cobi, Bhaji, Batakanu Sak (potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy), Puri, Papadam, Toor Dal, and Kheer.

The entree thali had a number of dishes that seemed to be regional iterations of my usual Indian food orders, like the Bhaji (sauteed spinach and corn), which reminded me of Palak, or the Ful-Cobi (cauliflower and green peas sauteed in a savory sauce), which didn’t seem super far off from Aloo-Gobi. Considering how most of the dishes were new to me, it was nice to see the familiar shapes of Puri (puffed whole wheat bread) and Papadam (thin lentil wafers) — no one is surprised that Maggie is well-versed in regional bread types. Although I stand by naan as my number one Indian carb of choice, Vatan’s mini-puris were probably the best I’ve come across, small puffed domes of dough, slightly sweet and though very airy, considerable enough to scoop up the curries. It is also worth mentioning here that aside from the singular spoon give to handle the Toor Dal (boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices), you’re largely expected to tackle the dishes at Vatan with your hands. It makes me curious about the prevalence of eating utensils worldwide — is it largely a western phenomenon? Where did the fork come from? (Clearly this is a case for Edible Inquiries!)

While I enjoyed the items in my entree thali possibly even more than those in the appetizer round, I only ended up reordering one dish (partially due to my stomach nearly exploding, but mostly because of taste) — the Kheer (rice pudding with saffron and dry fruits). Kheer is hands-down one of my favorite desserts in the world, because it combines my love of rice pudding (old lady, remember?) with the slightly unexpected savory flavors of saffron and cardamom. Vatan’s version was stellar, with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top, the cardamom and saffron present but only lightly applied, and the texture dotted with rice grains but not too clumpy. My favorite variety of Kheer also has pistachios in it, but I couldn’t fault Vatan for leaving it out of their recipe, since generosity was certainly in abundance across the board.

 

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner -- Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner — Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

We finished our meal with a round of dessert, miniscule when compared to the previous courses. A small dish of mango ice cream and a petite ceramic mug of Masala Chai (Indian tea cooked with cardamom, ginger and milk) were placed in front of each person. A digestive aid and breath freshening mixture, called Mukhwas, was served for the table. Mukhwas is a mixture of seeds and nuts, and I tried a spoonful, but found it overwhelmingly flavored with anise, which I just can’t stand. Looks like I’ll have to go to my good ol’ American Tums for digestive relief. Ever my father’s daughter, I dutifully ate up my mango ice cream, although I opted to end my meal with my Kheer refill and cup of Chai. I love drinking the straight-up black tea versions of chai, so having it with milk was a real treat, and takes me back to senior year of college, where I harbored a semi-worrisome addiction to Starbucks Chai lattes. We all got two cups of Vatan’s Masala Chai, and I added sugar to the first cup, but found after gulping down my Kheer, I actually prefered the unsweetened Chai for my second cup, which allowed me to pay more attention to the nuances of the spice mix in the tea.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I feel as though I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg on my meal at Vatan. There are just too many elements to explore, from the various levels of heat in the dishes, to the worth of reordering specific items, to how to properly strategize your meal as a whole. Regardless of the minutiae, however, I would recommend Vatan for both native New Yorkers and visitors. Sure, you’re getting a little bit of schtick, but no more than the surly song-and-dance you’d find at Katz’s (and maybe just a teensy bit more than the Brooklyn brusqueness of Peter Luger). And for all the over-the-top decorations and costumes, you get more than your money’s worth of well-cooked food. Having never been to India, I can’t speak to Vatan’s authenticity in its recipes, but for a casual lover of Indian food, I was pleased with the familiar flavors and delighted by the items I was trying for the first time. Vatan is definitely a great spot for large groups (it seemed like there were several families celebrating special occasions), but it never got too raucous on the Saturday night we were there. So limber up your jaw, loosen your belt, and buy a ticket on the Ganesh Express to Vatan — there’s an endless train of thalis calling your name.

 

Vatan

409 3rd Ave (near 29th St.)

http://www.vatanny.com/

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Tamarind: Discovery through Dining

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I’ve been living in New York for nearly three years now, and yet I still find myself marveling at the sheer diversity of people and cultures surrounding me. As I said in my review of Lafayette, I make a concerted effort to branch out and try different cuisines and new dishes. But with each new menu, I realize just how much I have barely dipped my big toenail into the ocean of multicultural options. A recent article by Robert Sietsema (formerly of the Village Voice, now at Eater) got me thinking about the living, breathing organism that is regional food. Our definitions of ethnic cuisines are largely gross generalizations derived from the particular geographic backgrounds of the immigrants that happened to find a home here in America, and the ways their culinary heritage evolved in that new homeland.  For example, the Italian food of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is predominantly influenced by the surge of Southern Italians making their way to the US in the 19th century, and what we call New York pizza is a glorious cheesy American mutation of their native flatbreads. But as geopolitical tides ebb and flow, so do the waves of immigration, leading to new proliferations of previously unfamiliar regional cooking to an area, like the recent rise of Filipino or Laotian restaurants in NYC. Even those cuisines an adventurous New York eater might think he or she has a handle on, such as Thai or Chinese, can easily puzzle and perplex with new focuses on areas like Isaan (the northeast plateau of Thailand) or Sichaun (a province in southwestern China).

The more I think about my recent dinner at Tamarind in the Flatiron District, the more I realize how much of an exercise in this kind of regional nuance it was. I count Indian as one of my favorite cuisines, but as I try to move beyond the safety net of the dishes I know and love, I’m discovering that what I think of as “Indian food” is pretty much equivalent to believing that Shake Shack covers the entirety of American cuisine. As an intellectually, but perhaps more importantly, lingually curious individual, I can barely contain my excitement over the possibilities of new restaurants offering unfamiliar specialities. Fortunately, for those with a more cautious palate, Tamarind offers exactly the kind of friendly, refined cooking to comfortably guide its diners through the hills and valleys of the sub-continental culinary landscape.

 

First Impressions:

Tamarind's elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

Tamarind’s elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

 

Tucked away on 22nd Street between Park Ave South and Broadway, Tamarind is only a few steps from the 6 train, but feels a little more removed from the Flatiron hustle and bustle. Along with the main restaurant, there is a small adjacent tearoom, offering afternoon tea service, as well as a la carte sandwiches and small dishes. Both spaces feature the modern restrained aesthetic of fine dining with accents of Indian heritage, such as the banquets draped in cool green, blue and white stripes contrasted with a large wrought iron gate mounted on the wall by the bar. The bar area is softly lit and narrow, the tightness accentuated by the row of tables across from the bar itself. Walking back, you pass the kitchen, where plate glass windows afford views of massive tandoors, the traditional cylindrical clay ovens used for baking, as well as the more familiar flattop and prep stations.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

The main dining room has high-ceilings, and presumably would be airy and spacious if it didn’t suffer from the same frustrating overcrowding I’ve found at NY restaurants across the range of price points. Not only does this make service difficult, as waiters strive to avoid bumping elbows with clustered patrons, but often the tables are far too small for the dining party’s size. I understand the need to maximize the amount of people you can serve per seating, but negotiating the plates and fearing the accidental wrath of my elbows should not be a concern when dining, especially at a fancier restaurant like Tamarind (and with a cuisine like Indian that often features small side components like rice, bread, and sauces like raita). I wondered if the larger tables sectioned off by what appeared to be the Indian version of a sukkah had a better diner to table proportion, since the walled off booths seemed to have a bit more breathing room. Hopefully you can request these tables when making a reservation, which I would definitely recommend for a little more spacious, VIP-like setting.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

 

The Food:

Tamarind’s extensive menu was almost too much for me to handle, and I mean that in the best way possible. I have a few go-to Indian dishes, but here I was torn between trying elevated versions of my favorites, and diving deep into new territories with the presumably trusty hands of highly regarded chefs (the downtown location, Tamarind Tribeca, has a Michelin star). Luckily, our waiter was very attentive, and perfectly happy to answer any and all of our myriad questions.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

After ordering the wine to go with our meal (Viognier, one of my favorite whites), we were served a complimentary amuse bouche of a small rectangle of puff pastry filled with mozzarella and tomato. The dough was similar to phyllo (in fact, my aunt said it reminded her of a boureka), and was delicately spiced to highlight the tomato filling. Other reviews I’ve read suggest that Tamarind usually uses this as the opening dish, but changes the fillings and sauces. Our pastry came with a ginger garlic dipping sauce, which was tangy without being too spicy.

We struggled to select our dishes, but finally opted to start with the Nawabi Shami Kabab, the Hara Bhara Kabab, and the special shrimp appetizer of the day. For entrees my aunt chose the Shrimp Caldin, my uncle the Malai Halibut, and I picked the Masaledar Chop. All of us being big eggplant fans, we also ordered the Bhagarey Baingan, not to mention sides of Lemon Rice, Kheera Raita, and a bread basket split between Kulcha and the restaurants special Nan-e-Tamarind. (If you were wondering, yes, I not only got a great meal out of this dinner, but I had a nice doggy-bag to take home with me.)

Nawabi Shami Kababs -- the finest ground lamb I've ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Nawabi Shami Kababs — the finest ground lamb I’ve ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Two of our appetizers were cooked as round patties, but they could not have been more different in taste. The Nawabi Shami Kabab (Grilled lamb patties with chickpea lentils, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and garlic) was made of very finely ground lamb meat, which lent it an incredible soft texture. I really liked the way the meat melted on my tongue, coating it with the warm spices. Those spices ended up being similar to the marinade for my lamb chops, but I found here them a little too overpowering, hiding some of the funkiness of the meat itself. The dish was served with two sauces: a cooler green chutney and a spicier ginger-filled red sauce, along with carrots and lettuce. Although I enjoyed all three of our appetizers, I found the Nawabi the least successful of the three. Without the textural contrast that I got from the lamb chops, the seasoning here became a little monotone after a while, especially in contrast to the spinach patties.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer -- basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer — basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special featured three jumbo prawns in a creamy and peppery tomato-based sauce. It ultimately reminded me of the ubiquitous tikka masala curry, mild but with a slight bite of the pepper. The shrimps were perfectly cooked, having a great snap to them without being gummy. I enjoyed this dish because of the familiar flavors, but I didn’t feel like it was anything new from the offerings at my local Indian haunts.

 

The Hara Bhara Kabab -- spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab — spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab (Spinach and cheese cakes flavored with whole spices) was my favorite appetizer of the night. The dark green spinach was mixed with paneer and seared on both sides, adding a crunchy outer sheen that gave way to the soft leaves and cheese. The bitterness of the greens played off the saltiness of the paneer, and I found the seasoning kept the contrast going bite after bite. Again the dish was served with two sauces — a creamy orange and a more viscous, syrupy red sauce. I would definitely consider ordering this again for myself, although having all three patties might weigh you down a bit in the face of the entrees to come.

 

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice -- a slight twist on a regional specialty.

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice — a slight twist on a regional specialty.

My aunt had chosen the Shrimp Caldin (A Goan specialty. Prawns in coconut sauce with mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves and coriander) on the strong recommendation of our waiter, and although she was underwhelmed by the dish, I was very happy she picked it, precisely because I had never heard of Goan food before. A little Wikipedia delving reveals that Goa is the smallest state in India, located on the western coast, along the Arabian Sea. Not surprisingly, as a coastal region, Goan cuisine is known for its seafood curries, and its food frequently makes use of coconut oil and coconut milk, as we clearly see on display in this dish. Caldin is traditionally a mild, bright yellow curry based in coconut milk and vegetables. Tamarind’s take took a step away from tradition, the shrimp arriving in a lighter green bath of sauce. The prawns were smaller than the monsters in our appetizer, but you could argue that there were more in the dish, so it balanced out. From the description I had expected the curry to taste like Korma, a rich curry thickened with coconut milk and yogurt. However, the Shrimp Caldin was much lighter in both texture and flavor, the sharpness of the mustards seeds, and the toasted flavors of the cumin and coriander asserting themselves first, with the coconut milk appearing more as a subtle aftertaste. As with most of the proteins we tasted at Tamarind, the shrimp were very well executed. I really enjoyed the deft handling of the coconut milk balanced with the spices, but I wish there had been some vegetables mixed into the curry to add texture and a bit more depth to the dish.

 

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

My uncle’s Malai Halibut (Halibut flavored with mace and cardamom in a coconut ginger sauce) was listed on the menu as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2004 USA Fish Dish Awards, and from the bit I tasted, I thought it was a well-deserved victory. Unlike the Shrimp Caldin, coconut took center stage with this dish, the tropical flavoring mellowing out the nuttier influences of mace and cardamom. I had only small tastes of my aunt’s and uncle’s dishes because I was so enraptured with my own entree, but the small bite I got of the Halibut was pretty superb. A quick glance at the fish indicates how soft the flesh was — my fork swiped through the fish like a knife through hot butter. It flaked ever so delicately and worked as a luscious base for the more flavor-forward ginger and coconut sauce.

 

The Masaledar Chop -- frankly, some of the best lamb chops I've had in a while.

The Masaledar Chop — frankly, these were some of the best lamb chops I’ve had in a while.

All three of us agreed that my Masaledar Chop (Lamb chops marinated in nutmeg, cinnamon and aromatic Indian spices) was the champion main course of the night. I had decided early on that I wanted something from the Tandoor section of the menu. I figured Tamarind would be the perfect place to see traditional tandoori cooking in action, since often the dishes you encounter at neighborhood Indian restaurants are over-baked, dry and flavorless. Initially I leaned towards getting the lamb kabobs, wanting to avoid something so seemingly mundane as lamb chops, but once again our waiter came to the rescue and steered me away from the kabobs, explaining that though they were certainly good, the lamb chops are one of the most popular dishes on the menu, as well as being one of his personal favorites. It seems I fall into that category of strong supporters as well. The dish arrived with three sizable chops, the meat reddish-brown and slightly charred at the edges like a good hamburger, with glistening, marbled fatty edges that melted in your mouth and gave way to slightly chewy, just medium meat that reminded me of chai in its seasoning. A spinach/potato pancake and a small collection of green beans and carrots accompanied the dish, along with another duo of sauces, this time appearing in the form of a white raita-esque sauce, and a red sauce that reminded me of currywurst ketchup.  Looking over the menu description, it’s no surprise that I was so enthralled with this entree — I jump at the chance to have lamb whenever I can, and I’m one of those gross people who can never have enough of the warm autumn spices of cinnamon and nutmeg (give me all the pumpkin spice lattes you got). To be honest, I think I’d rather have this preparation over the rosemary and mint jelly classic European style, especially when the simple baking in the tandoor is so brilliantly executed, leaving you with a tender, moist chop that explains why the technique is so popular and prominent in Indian cuisine.

The Bhagarey Baigan (Japanese eggplant cooked in an aromatic sauce with peanuts, sesame seeds and coconut) proved to be another new regional discovery for me. The dish that arrived at our table was completely different from what I had anticipated, due to my misreading of the menu (and since it arrived slightly later, I of course neglected to take a photo — oops). I assumed that we were getting Baingan Bharta, a vegetarian favorite of mine that is pretty much an Indian version of baba ghanous — a roasted eggplant curry that is cooked down to puree consistency. Bhagarey Baigan, on the other hand, is a Hyderbadi curry, traditionally employing stuffed pieces of eggplant and incorporating peanuts into the masala (for the geographically curious, Hyderbad is the capital city of the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh). The Tamarind version had large chunks of Japanese eggplant, cooked to the point of there being just a bit of tension to the outer skin, with a nearly liquid soft interior that oozed out to mix with the sauce. I mostly ate this for lunch the next day, which I think improved the dish even further by allowing the flavors to stew and grow stronger. The nutty peanuts helped to brighten the smoky overtones of the eggplant, and while I think I still prefer Baingan Bharta, I’d gladly try Bhagarey Baigan again if given the opportunity.

The raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

The Kheera Raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

I barely touched the Lemon Rice (Lemon flavored basmati rice with curry leaves and mustard seeds) and Kheera Raita (Yogurt with grated cucumber), since I was plenty happy with the sauces on my own plate, but the small samples I had were well-executed, mild in flavor to blend with the entrees. Now obviously we all know how I feel about bread, and Naan is one of the dangerous things to put in front of me — I can inhale a basket of that stuff with little thought of the amount of butter and carbs I’ve just wolfed down, no dip or sauce necessary. From the menu description, I expected the Nan-e-Tamarind (Bread filled with dry fruits, nuts, and raisins) to be like trail mix baked into bread, but in fact the stuffing ingredients had been blended into a bright orange paste. While I might have enjoyed it more as a snack on its own, I found it to be a bit too sweet to go along with dinner. I much preferred our other bread order, the Kulcha (Prepared with onion and black pepper). I had never heard of Kulcha before (most of my non-naan forays have involved Roti or Paratha), and to be honest, if I hadn’t checked the menu, I would have thought it was just another stuffed piece of naan. Again, a little research uncovers that Kulcha is a Punjabi variant of naan, made with maida (and Indian flour resembling cake flour) and always featuring some sort of filling. The pieces we had were overflowing with large pieces of caramelized onion and flecks of black pepper. Although ordering the Kulcha ups your risk of bad breath, for naan lovers it is an intriguing sidestep, incorporating new spices and flavors into a fluffy format I personally can’t get enough of.

For dessert (yes, that inclination runs in the family), we split an order of the Rice Pudding (Basmati rice cooked with milk and caramelized pistachios). Kheer, or Indian rice pudding, is my favorite dessert of the cuisine, even above kulfi (Maggie picks something over ice cream? Blasphemy!). I love the interplay of cardamom with the creamy dairy-based pudding, and Tamarind serves a great rendition. The dish was thicky without veering into cottage-cheese territory, the rice grains adding a little bit of texture as a vehicle for the deftly employed spice blend of sweet pistachios and cardamom.

 

Final Thoughts:

People complain that our world is getting smaller — that because of the Internet, everyone’s watching the same TV shows, eating the same Hot Pockets, and gradually losing our individuality. However, I have to believe that, at least when it comes to food, all this coming together is actually expanding our horizons. I find the growing influence of regional Asian cooking in the New York food scene thrilling, and pop-ups like Khao Man Gai NY and new bakery O Merveilleux (specializing in one particular traditional Belgian dessert) only spur my enthusiasm to uncover new tastes and techniques. Best of all, I love the way these unfamiliar names and ingredients drive me to learn more about a country’s history and geography. Prior to this post, I couldn’t have told you where Goa or Hyderbad was, or that the Portuguese colonized Goa in the 16th century, and ruled it until 1961.

While I think pushing your dining frontiers is a habit to be encouraged across the board, eating at a place like Tamarind certainly makes the journey easier. The open views of the kitchen speak to the larger philosophy of the restaurant, striving to provide insight into the nuances of Indian cuisine through attentive and well-informed service and cooking. Although I am always game to have Indian food at any price point, the wonderful dishes I had at Tamarind make me want to explore other fine dining Indian spots like Junoon, and the downtown location of Tamarind. Much like my experience at Spice Market, based on this dinner, I would recommend Tamarind both to Indian enthusiasts and the less initiated. It’s worth every penny to be served by a staff eager to show off their chops (both literal and figurative), while keeping your comfort level and preferences in mind. Personally, I can’t wait to go back to Tamarind for Restaurant Week, hopefully with a little more Wikipedia research under my belt, in order to better plunge forward into the delicious unknown.

 

Tamarind

41-43 East 22nd Street (between Park Ave South and Broadway)

http://www.tamarindrestaurantsnyc.com/

Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

2013-03-19 14.06.42

The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.