New Flatiron Lounge Is
An Indian-Themed Scene
Taj is a hot new restaurant- cum -lounge in the Flatiron district serving Indian fusion cuisine. Being British, I grew up with an Indian fusion cuisine of sorts: It was known as the Sunday curry lunch and consisted of chicken and lamb curries served with mango chutney and endless little bowls of chopped condiments: peanuts, apples, cucumber, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, sliced bananas, sultanas and even desiccated coconut. The spur to this meal, which was served with warm beer, was a lethal cocktail that has all but vanished with the empire: Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, floating with mint and cucumber.
Taj has no Pimm’s on its list of cocktails, but it does have something called a “Budina” that’s made with vodka, lime, mint and cucumber. It would have been pretty good had it not been served warm, like English beer.
The restaurant is owned by Lesly Bernard, the downtown party planner and restaurateur, and Lesly Zamor, the floral designer and founder of the ultra-hip boutique Bloom flowers. Amid the In the Days of the Raj setting of chandeliers, ottomans, silk pillows and reclining lounge beds, you can sample the menu (overseen by consultant chef Jonathan Lindenauer, formerly of Aureole and Jean Georges) which includes dishes like lobster with garam masala, and tandoori red snapper with chickpea-potato fritters.
It all sounded terrific, so I felt lucky when there was a cancellation on a recent Saturday night and I managed to secure a table for five people at 8 o’clock.
I was 15 minutes late, and even though I’d called ahead, the welcome from the pretty Indian hostess, who sported a Sanskrit tattoo on her arm, was rather cool. She stepped out from behind the desk and motioned to someone to take us to our table.
The restaurant is in a vast, dark room (with ceilings two stories high) that was formerly Bloom Ballroom, an “event” space. It has a mezzanine lounge with couches and, on the opposite wall, a projection screen that changes color from time to time.
One of my friends was at the bar, settling his bill for a glass of red wine. The person leading us to our table had vanished, so we wandered on through the darkness, past some lounge tables and chairs, to the nearest empty banquette, which was lit up dramatically under a 12-foot-tall yellow silk lamp shaped like a trumpet flower.
We’d been sitting for a few minutes when there was a brisk tip-tapping of high heels. The hostess stopped at our table and stood before us like the head nurse investigating a rumpus in the mental ward.
“Just to let you know,” she said, “we have two seatings. You’ll be welcome to sit in the lounge for as long as you like. But you must vacate the table in time for the next seating.”
She gave us a thin smile and tip-tapped away.
I suppose such treatment is normal in places like this, but it was the first time, in all my years of eating in restaurants, that I’ve been told when to leave before I’d even been handed a menu.
Like our hostess, the room is surprisingly lacking in warmth. Yes, there are ottomans and couches, but the place looks gloomy, even when filled, as it was, with tables of young women looking for action. There’s a series of wooden boxes set into the wall with limestone statues of the god Shiva in various poses, lit from above like exhibits in a museum. And instead of the soothing strains of Ravi Shankar on the sitar, there’s the steady pounding of techno music.
“I like the music,” said my husband.
I’d have liked it better had we been able to talk over it without shouting. These big, semicircular banquettes are just fine for “canoodling” (or whatever it calls itself), having your picture taken for Page Six or seeing if anyone famous comes into the room. But talking to anyone except your immediate neighbor can be hell. So have a drink instead. You’ll need one.
Our waitress arrived with cocktails and glasses of wine. She was a voluptuous, dark-skinned version of Nell Gwynn, all smiles and twinkles, in a skimpy cotton bustier. “What’s good?” we asked, looking at the menu.
“It’s all great,” She replied.
The food, alas, was not. Taj has a limited menu, with just four first courses and five main dishes, and the combinations of Indian spices and Western ingredients sounded interesting. But most of the dishes were badly prepared. Three seared sea scallops arrived afloat in a Gewürtztraminer broth (shades of Vongerichten), with whole baby carrots, oyster mushrooms and cucumber. It was a curious mix, like the condiments of the curry lunches of my youth; the ingredients didn’t seem to have any relevance to one another. To boot, the scallops weren’t hot and they tasted flat. Grilled “fragrant” shrimp were mushy, but they were perked up with some crisp pappadam and a zesty mango-pineapple chutney. What would have been a perfectly decent tuna tartare and wild striped sea bass tartare had been “fusioned” with a jolt of panch phorant, an Indian spice made from fennel, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and black mustard seed. The spices made the fish taste musty.
A salad made of wild greens, however, which I thought would be the most boring dish on the menu, was surprisingly good. The leaves were tossed in a light vinaigrette seasoned with chaat masala and tahini, and sprinkled with crunchy, fried spiced chickpeas that were as addictive as peanuts.
The beef tenderloin was straightforward: Tender, rare slices of meat were served with a good red wine sauce on some rather nasty spinach, along with a bland gratin of potatoes and root vegetables. The lamb chops were a disaster, cooked until dry (no one had bothered to ask how my friend wanted them done, and he forget to bring it up). They languished on a mushy bed of red lentils and spinach, with raita and a cumin jus as a nod to India.
“To enjoy the food here, it would help to be stoned,” commented one of my friends, a twentysomething woman who had just returned from a week of intense clubbing in Miami Beach.
A joint or two beforehand would have certainly improved the taste of the bland chicken breast, which was prettily served on a rectangular platter with crème fraîche, a spiced nut powder and a curious rutabaga-cauliflower hash. As for the pan-roasted lobster, it was barely more than an embryo, and what was visible of it among the mush of biryani rice, micro greens and dates on the plate were bits as tough as a maharajah’s red leather slipper. But the tandoori red snapper, on the other hand, showed what the kitchen was capable of when it had a steadier hand. It was boldy seasoned with tandoori spices, perfectly cooked, and served with a small, refreshing salad of shaved cucumber and carrots, and crisp chickpea-potato fritters the size of silver dollars.
The wine list is short, international and fairly priced. It also offers what for me was a novelty, Indian wine. We tried the red, a Cabernet Shiraz, and a rosé. I asked my husband what he thought. At college he’d been lucky enough to take classes with the great poet and translator, Robert Fitzgerald. “He graded papers in ascending order: ‘not very good,’ ‘pretty good’ and ‘not bad at all,'” my husband said. “This shiraz is not very good-like the food.”
For dessert, there were raspberry-filled samosas served with chocolate sauce. They tasted like breakfast food in a diner-thick and doughy.
“It’s a Sex and the City type of place,” said my young friend from Miami Beach. The next table was entirely made up of women. “They look like out-of-state girls, and they’ll be like: ‘Oh, we ate at Taj last night!'”
When we stepped outside, mercifully having finished dinner without being asked to vacate our table, velvet ropes had gone up by the door-now manned by bouncers-where a crowd was beginning to gather.
“As an experience,” said my husband as we got into a taxi, “I’d grade that evening ‘not very good.'”
But Taj is not really a serious restaurant, it’s a lounge. People who like that sort of thing will find themselves right at home here.