Tamarind: Discovery through Dining

2013-10-10 19.24.04

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/

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