Inside Danny Meyer’s Tabla, A Fantastic New Indian World

“Chutney is marvelous. I’m mad about it. To me it’s

very imperial.”–Diana Vreeland

In November 1929, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company announced

plans to build the tallest skyscraper in the city (if not the world). It

was to be a hundred stories high, covering an entire block and overlooking

Madison Park, a 6.8-acre lawn that started out as a potter’s field for

victims of yellow fever three centuries ago. But two weeks later, the stock

market crashed, and with it the plans for a skyscraper. The north annex of

the building kept its girth but grew to only 29 stories.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood, which had been the entertainment hub of the

city, lost its glamour as fancy hotels and restaurants were replaced by

dreary office buildings, and the park was eventually taken over by drug

dealers. But now all this is changing. In a major renovation

of the Met Life building, restaurateur Danny Meyer (Union

Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern) took over part of the magnificent Art

Deco lobby–a space big enough for not just one but two restaurants. On

the south side he opened Eleven Madison Park, a French-American brasserie I

reviewed some weeks ago [Feb. 8]; and on the north side (opposite the old

Supreme Court building, a grand marble palace built in the style of an

18th-century English country house) he installed Tabla.

Architecturally, Tabla–designed by Peter and Paul Bentel–is as

exciting as its sibling, perhaps even more so. Downstairs, the lobby has

been transformed into a lively bar, behind which are cooks pulling trays of

freshly baked Indian breads from three tandoori ovens: roti and naan in

such wild flavors as pumpernickel-caper, horseradish and buckwheat-honey.

They are served with mix ‘n’ match toppings for people to share,

along with a glass of wine or one of the many micro-brewed beers available.

The smell is wonderful, and here you can eat at the bar or a table without

a reservation.

The dining room proper is up a magnificent staircase made from a

luminous red wood called padauk and has a view of the cleaned-up park and

the Flatiron Building. The walls are jade and coral; there are orchids on

the tables. I love the way it looks.

But when you sit down, alas, pinpoints of overhead light shine into your

eyes (we tried unsuccessfully to get them turned down). The other problem

is noise. Even at lunch one day, when the room wasn’t crowded, it was

hard to hear across the table.

The food is nothing if not intriguing. Chef Floyd Cardoz, a native of

Bombay, was the executive sous-chef at Lespinasse under Gray Kunz, from

whom he learned much about putting together unexpected tastes and flavors.

He has created a fascinating cuisine, a fusion of Indian spices with

French-American dishes, although it’s actually not the first time

anyone has tried this in New York. (Dean Willis, a British-born chef who

has just joined Pondicherry, previously did it at Salient in SoHo and the

Garrick in the theater district.) Mr. Cardoz says there were just four

Indian spices in the kitchen when he arrived at Lespinasse; when he left

they had incorporated over 25. It’s not just the spices that make this

cuisine; it’s also the juxtaposition of surprising ingredients.

For example, I’ve never had samosas, the deep-fried pastry

turnovers, as good as those I tried at Tabla. They were crisp and light,

and instead of the usual meat or vegetable and potato stuffing, they were

filled with seared spiced magret of duck and potatoes, and served with a

fennel and walnut salad. Floury fried potato and tapioca

“macaire” with pickled vegetables and tomato-ginger ketchup were

also delicious, as were the seared sea scallops with chickpea vegetable

chaat, the whole dish brought together by a piquant sauce of red peppers

with mustard oil.

But as I worked my way around the menu, I kept thinking, “This is

certainly interesting and exotic and it makes me think, but do I really

want to eat it again?” The mixture of yogurt soup with mushrooms, rice

dumplings, leeks and baby shiitake tasted somehow muddied. Fritters made

from sheep’s milk paneer (like a cottage cheese) caught the back of my

throat, partly because they were both dry and spicy. And the curry

leaf-lime vinaigrette fought with the spiciness of the leaves of the

mesclun salad. Crispy fried squid with celery remoulade and pickled garlic

vinaigrette was ordinary.

An English friend had swooned when she saw braised oxtail on the menu (a

dish not allowed in Britain on account of mad cow disease). It was served

on tapioca with roasted beets. “It’s like frog’s spawn with

beef,” she said. I like tapioca (except in English tapioca pudding);

it was brilliantly used in the “macaire,” but it didn’t do

anything for the beef, which was also spicy in a way that stopped my taste

buds in their tracks and clashed with the beets. I had similar problems

with the mustard fettuccine with veal. The combination of pasta, chunks of

tender braised veal, spinach and tomatoes should have worked beautifully,

but perhaps it was the mustard that thwarted the dish, making it taste

harsh, not mellow.

But the braised lamb shank and chops were something else again, dark and

peppery, perfectly spiced and cooked just right, with creamy semolina,

squash and roasted pepper stew. Tandoori-roasted quail was a little dry,

with a cinnamon and black pepper glaze that, unlike the coating on the

lamb, did little for the bird. Again I thought, what’s wrong with this

picture? Perhaps it was the cinnamon that got in the way. The spätzle

made from chickpeas were crumbly and delicious.

I had such a love-hate experience with the main courses that I looked at

the dessert menu with some trepidation. Sweet potato cheesecake, chocolate

date cake, grapefruit- mustard sorbet! What would they think of next? But

Jackie Riley’s desserts were nothing short of marvelous. Vanilla bean

kulfi (an Indian ice cream made with milk frozen in a conical mold) looked

like a fabulous piece of costume jewelry, topped with a gold nob surrounded

by a red ring of sauce. It had a lovely, smooth vanilla flavor. The sweet

potato cheesecake was heavenly, as was the warm chocolate date cake, soft

and crunchy, with coconut cognac sauce and iced espresso yogurt.

Even though I may not want to try every dish on the menu again, I am

more than impressed by the creativity and inspiration of the cooking at

Tabla. To many New Yorkers, alas, India’s vast and varied cuisine can

be reduced to one word: “curry,” meaning a thick yellow sauce

served with meat, fish or chicken, along with rice and Major Grey’s

chutney. They will be introduced to a whole new world by Mr. Cardoz.

Tabla

* *

11 Madison Avenue, at East 25th Street

889-0667

Dress: Casual but elegant

Noise level: High

Wine list: Excellent

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Three-course prix-fixe dinner $48, lunch main courses $8 to

$18

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday to

11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor