Pod People: Tamarind Explores the Life of Spice

“What’s this I’ve just eaten?” one of my friends asked the young waiter, pointing to the shards of a pastry turnover becalmed on the remains of a mysterious sauce.

“Ghujjia,” he replied promptly.

“You aren’t from India, are you?” my friend asked.

“No. Moscow.”

“Are there any Indian restaurants in Moscow?”

The waiter looked surprised. “Oh, yes! We used to be friends!”

I have never been to Moscow, and certainly never thought of it as a city of curry houses. I picture them full of barrel-chested men with close haircuts in leather jackets, knocking back vodka and seeing who could wolf down the hottest vindaloo.

The executive chef at Tamarind comes by way of a place equally hard to imagine as a creative hotbed of Indian food: Memphis, Tenn. Raji Jallepalli-Reiss, who is originally from the south of India, built a considerable reputation there for the innovative fusion cuisine served at her 12-year-old restaurant, Raji’s. Now she’s brought her style of regional Indian cooking to Tamarind, which opened recently in a former Woolworth’s warehouse in the Flatiron district.

The restaurant, owned by Avtar Walia, a partner in Dawat, is cool and modern in its design. Done up in white, beige and pale grays, it has a skylight, marble and mahogany floors, and tables set with votive candles. At the front door is a floor-to-ceiling wrought-iron wall hanging of dancers’ silhouettes. The people sitting on the stools at the large, square bar are thrown into silhouette by the back-lit panels that surround its base. They sat up taller when Uma Thurman came in the night we were there, looking for a takeout menu. Framed Indian textiles and mirrors hang on the walls, and by the entrance to the main dining room is a glassed-in kitchen with tandoori ovens where you can see the chefs at work, shaping dough and skewering quail. At either end of the room, semiprivate curved banquettes sit on platforms that look like little houses, bordered by trellises screened from one another with translucent fabric. (Though these niches are attractive, the tables are rather big and it’s hard to hear the person at the other end.) The back wall is bedecked with rows of wooden clappers, which are hung around the necks of cows in India, each embedded with a piece of colored glass.

Ms. Jallepalli-Reiss combines classic French techniques with the spices traditionally used in Indian cooking (just as French chefs, conversely, love to use exotic Asian seasonings in their food). She doesn’t juxtapose unexpected ingredients in startling ways like the chef at Tabla (e.g., pomegranates with apples, star anise and sweetbreads), or go the Escoffier route with sorbets between courses and truffle oil on biryani, as they do at Ada. But she does use wine and herbs in her sauces. Tamarind’s extensive menu is a combination of the familiar (lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka), regional dishes and the chef’s inventions, such as tandoori venison with cranberry sauce and toasted fenugreek. It is, however, one of those menus that makes everyone at the table throw up their hands and say, “Someone else please do the ordering!” It’s hard to tell what is going to be good and what is not, for the food is uneven. One night the waiter steered me to the lamb vindaloo, and I capitulated resentfully, thinking it a dull choice. But I didn’t regret it; in fact, I’ve never had better. The sauce wasn’t particularly fiery, but the spices were complex. On the other hand, the venison, though tender, had a mushy texture.

Tamarind is an Asian fruit, a long, dark-brown pod containing small seeds and a sweet-sour pulp. In cooking, it functions like lemon juice, and it is to Ms. Jallepalli-Reiss as fleur de sel is to the French chef who has a restaurant named for this salt just two blocks away. As a sauce, tamarind provides a tart foil to the Calcutta specialty raj kachori, a delicate, crisp patty shaped like a flying saucer and stuffed with fresh chickpeas, yogurt and mint. There is a marvelous, robust red “soup” of lentils, minced vegetables and garlic that is served with the roast Cornish hen, making up for the fact that the bird is a little dry. Smoked tamarind adds another dimension to konju pappas, juicy shrimp cooked in a spicy coconut sauce with curry leaves.

Traditional Indian aloo tikiyas–spicy, meltingly soft potato cakes beneath a crunchy exterior–are seasoned with ginger, turmeric, green chilis and mango powder, and served with tamarind and mint chutney. Three bhajias, or fritters–one made with a whole spinach leaf, another with sliced plantain and the third with homemade cheese–are subtle and light. But the vegetable samosas are a bit doughy.

The tandoori oven has been the scene of many a culinary crime, yielding shriveled bits of red fish or meat that even the most trenchant yogurt marinade has failed to protect. The results at Tamarind are mixed. One of the best dishes is noorani kebab, a creation of the chef: boneless pieces of tender chicken breast flavored with saffron. Tandoori scallops, marinated in yogurt and garam masala, are juicy but need salt. The mixed grill, however, is not stellar.

A Sanskrit verse states that if people eat animals in this world, animals will eat them in the next. Whether or not you subscribe to this ominous notion, it’s worth trying some of Tamarind’s wide selection of vegetarian dishes. The lotus-root dumplings filled with farmer’s cheese are terrific, as is the spiced okra, cut in slices and simmered with onion, tomato and dried mango. Lemon rice mixed with curry leaves, mustard seeds, peanuts and lentils goes wonderfully with all of the dishes. Among the more unusual breads are nan stuffed with a bright red mixture of tamarind seeds and raisins, and rosemary nan, served with a small bowl of olive oil.

Many Westerners find Indian desserts a bit too sweet and redolent of the perfume bottle. Not here. The ice creams–mango, kulfi (pistachio) and ginger–are rich and creamy without being the least cloying. The rasmalai, awkwardly described as “sweet, spongy cottage-cheese dumplings,” have a pleasant sour flavor that goes nicely with cardamom and rosewater. Gulab jamun– doughnuts made from dry milk and honey–are served hot and dipped in sugar. They’re great. The ghujjia, the remnants of which were identified by our Muscovite waiter, is a pastry stuffed with semolina, raisins, coconut and cashews. It comes not with tamarind but a lemon sauce.

Unlike London (and, presumably, Moscow), New York has woefully few good Indian restaurants. Tamarind joins the ranks of its best.

Tamarind

* *

41-43 East 22nd Street

674-7400

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Mostly French and American, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Executive complete lunch $15 and $17; dinner main courses $15 to $26

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. To 2:45 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 to midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor