Dawat, the venerable Indian restaurant on the Upper East Side, has a new next-door neighbor. Adä may be Indian, too, but it could not be more different from Dawat–nor, indeed, from any other Indian restaurant in New York. In fact, the first time I went there for dinner, shortly after it opened, one of my guests was over half an hour late because he’d gone to Dawat by mistake. He waited and waited there because they insisted that he’d come to the right place. “Adä,” he was told, “is not an Indian restaurant.”
It certainly doesn’t look like one. (My friend had missed the words “maison de l’Inde” discreetly inscribed under the name–which is pronounced Ad-aah and means “with style or flair” in Urdu–on the door.) There is no flocked wallpaper, no beaded curtains and no saffron stains on the tablecloths. You’d think you were in an expense-account Northern Italian restaurant (which it was, in its previous incarnation as Girafe). Restraint has been the guiding instinct in Adä’s décor: white carpets, gray and white banquettes, plain white walls hung with twirled sconces made from red, black and blue Murano glass. Above my husband’s head was a large, Monty Python-esque foot, part of a white plaster bas relief of an Indian dancer whose arms were hanging on the facing wall.
“Are you comfortable?” asked the maître d’.
We were. The room was quiet enough for conversation, with faint, gentle strains of a sitar playing in the background. The smell of wood smoke from a burning fireplace by the door hung in the air, mingled with a subtle underlay of spices, like the scent of piñon from a fire in the Southwest.
An army of waiters and busboys in white jackets patrolled the restaurant. (I counted 11 in the room at one time, for about a dozen customers.) With cocktails we were served crisp little wafers topped with cream cheese before being handed the menus, which list two prix-fixe dinners offering around half a dozen choices per course. The prices were stiff. Who, I wondered, was ready to fork over $55 a head for “cuisine de la maison,” or $65 for “cuisine du palais”–eaten, admittedly, with heavy French silver on tables set with orchids and candles? At an adjacent table was a man with a bristling white mustache who looked the very model of a retired British Army officer but for his tie, which was decorated not with regimental stripes but with little white terriers. On the other side, an enthralling conversation peppered with such expressions as “per pay interest,” “malpractice problems” and “bridge loans” indicated the presence of lawyers. You certainly won’t find these people over a plate of vindaloo and lemon pickle on East Sixth Street (where, everyone knows, all the restaurants share a giant kitchen).
“I want people to say they went to a French restaurant where the food happened to be Indian,” said David R. Shah, Adä’s owner. So his kitchen kicks off with an amuse gueule, such as pear slices topped with a creamy goat cheese, and punctuates courses with various palate-cleansing entremets–cantaloupe or mango sorbet topped with cilantro foam, or rosemary-scented green-apple sorbet under a froth of milk foam–served in shot glasses with demitasse spoons.
“Dig down!” the retired army officer commanded his wife, in the voice of a man accustomed to having people snap to attention when he speaks. With her tiny spoon poised in mid-air, she was gazing at the bright green foam in her glass as though she thought it might explode if she touched it.
Adä’s food is not, as my companion suggested, the result of a bunch of people in New Delhi poring over Escoffier. Chef Rajender S. Rana was at the Hyatt Regency and Sheraton in New Delhi, and Mr. Shah insists that, apart from the desserts, which are Western, the cooking is authentically Indian. Are samosas stuffed with shiitakes and cèpes authentic? Is white truffle oil in mushroom biryani? Does it matter? I don’t think so. One thing is certain, however: This food, which is subtle and delicately spiced, does not call for beer. A chilled bottle of bernkastler from the short wine list (which Mr. Shah says is being revamped) goes very well.
Escabeche of rock shrimp and tuna was pickled in a pleasantly astringent Goanese marinade of tamarind, mango, chiles and citrus juices and served, rakishly, in a martini glass. A pan-seared white pea, potato and raisin cake was sharpened with cilantro, mint and cumin seed and garnished with crunchy caramelized bananas and crème fraîche. Believe it or not, it was a heavenly combination. But the samosas were doughy, and the salmon “queznelles” (actually kofta, or minced salmon dumplings) topped with salmon roe were so lightly spiced as to be almost flavorless. Thankfully, they were perked up with lemon rice and a fresh coconut curry sauce.
Chickpeas and garam masala-spiced fingerling potatoes were seasoned with dry mango powder, cumin and coriander, and nestled in a feathery phyllo cup. They were balanced with mint and yogurt sauces, with dates rolled in coconut on the side. Dumplings made with homemade panir (fresh cottage cheese), apricots and cumin were drizzled with cashew-yogurt sauce and set upon perfumed basmati pilaf. Dishes like these could turn anyone into a vegetarian.
Many a crime has been committed in the tandoori oven, which so often yields dry, red-tinted bits of meat and poultry that are the worst, most expensive things on the menu. This is not the case at Adä. Seekh kebab–cylinders of minced goat, tomato and cilantro seasoned with nutmeg, cardomom and paprika–were juicy and served on a bright bed of greens and red-onion salad. Whole bass, coated with mustard and roasted in the tandoori oven until the skin was burnished and the flesh moist, could not have been bettered.
Those who like hot food often have their bluff called in Indian restaurants, but you need have no fear here. The waiter’s warning about the spiciness of the Goan barbecued ribs fell on deaf ears, and rightly so–although the ribs were one of Adä’s best dishes, they had no jolt, just a pleasant tang from a chili-garam masala rub and an apple-vinegar glaze using jaggery, or unrefined brown sugar made from palm sap. They came with onion pakora, whose texture reminded me of Yorkshire pudding, along with mango slaw. Lamb shank vindaloo with potatoes wasn’t very hot either, nor was it very moist. A pleasing mild curry of coconut-crusted sea bass in a rich green sauce flavored with fresh curry leaves was paired with perfectly judged tomato-cilantro rice. Main courses are served with a side dish of peppery dal and hot, flaky nan sprinkled with herbs.
Desserts included an apple sundae made with lady fingers and topped with saffron cream, and a coconut panna cotta with ice-wine gelée blended with pieces of Asian pear on a layer of coconut rice. A sampler of warm molten chocolate cake with green tea-caramel sauce sprinkled with fleur de sel, green tea-chocolate flan and chocolate sorbet made one of my friends feel expansive. “Do you find it odd that you opened right next to another Indian restaurant?” he asked the waiter as he cleared the plates.
The waiter looked quite indignant. “We are not at all the same! We have French service, and not a lot of spice.”
He put a plate of small cookies down on the table and muttered something I could not hear.
“What did you say these are?” I asked.
“I said, these are free!”
Free meringues! Now what Indian restaurant in New York do you know that serves free meringues? Adä may be an oddity, but it’s more than welcome in a city that has so few places serving good Indian food.
208 East 58th Street
Noise level: Low
Wine list: Short but in progress
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch three-course prix fixe $28; dinner seven-course prix fixe $55 and $65
Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor