“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
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.
11 Madison Avenue, at East 25th Street
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
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
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor