You’d never guess this used to be a Jewish delicatessen serving pastrami sandwiches, lox and bagels. Now, the walls are covered with gold-on-red gauze curtains and inset with antique palace doors brought over from India. Blue, red, green and white lanterns made from etched colored glass hang like jewels from the ceiling, which is two stories high. There are votive candles everywhere, on the bar and the tables, and placed along the steps of a white marble staircase that has hand-carved banisters as intricate as lace and leads to a balcony dining room. Welcome to the magical world of Dévi, an Indian restaurant that opened a couple of months ago near Union Square, down the street from ABC Carpet and Home.
Could the food live up to such a setting? Our waiter, who was from New Delhi (and wore an embroidered orange linen tunic with matching pants), brought our first courses. “Bombay bhel puri,” he announced, setting down a square green plate. In the center was a small pyramid made of puffed rice kernels and potatoes, sprinkled with fried chickpea flour. It was flavored with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, mint and tamarind, and was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before, a miraculous interplay of crunchy and soft, sweet and sour. “Roadside food!” he said. “Full of protein!”
Next, deep-fried golden triangles made of rice flour and lentils arrived on a bed of smooth two-tone red and green chutneys-tomato and mint coconut. The name of these delicious morsels-ying yang idly upma-sounds like a new dance step.
“This is kararee bhindi.” It was a plate piled with fried okra. “I think you will find it refreshing.” Amazing, more like. The okra was cut in thin slivers, deep-fried until crisp, and tossed with onion, tomato and cilantro. It was as addictive as French fries.
At Dévi, the food is every bit as enticing as the décor. You won’t find the standard vindaloos, kormas and tandoori dishes that are the mainstay of so many Indian restaurants here in New York. The cuisine is taken to another level. The restaurant, which is owned by Rakesh Aggarwal of the Baluchi’s chain, has two chefs, Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur. They both used to cook at the much-acclaimed Amma, which they left last spring, and many of the dishes they served there have reappeared on the menu at Dévi. They describe their food as “authentic home cooking from the diverse regions of India.” In fact, it runs the gamut from “roadside food” to the most refined, with a wide spectrum of tastes and unusual ingredients. Together, they have produced an Indian cuisine that is modern without sacrificing any of its integrity.
Our waiter, whose name was Manish, was clearly as proud of the food as he was knowledgeable. Goan shrimp, sautéed in butter, were coated with a wonderful spicy sauce called balchao. “It’s made with vinegar, which is unusual in Indian cooking,” he explained.
It was also made with whole red chilies. A look of astonishment came over my companion’s face as he ate it. “Once you get by the first pepper, the second is less powerful,” he said, taking a swig of water. “Clearly there’s some immunizing effect from the first one.”
There are many vegetarian dishes on the menu, and they are among the best. Lotus seeds and cashews were simmered in a creamy aromatic sauce; raita made with yogurt was mixed with crispy lotus stem. Soft yam dumplings seasoned with ginger, cilantro and spices were poached in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. Manchurian cauliflower, based on an Indo-Chinese recipe, was one of the more remarkable dishes I’ve tried recently. The florets are marinated in garlic and lemon juice, then cooked in a fiery tomato sauce seasoned with scallions and chilies. The secret ingredient, believe or not, is ketchup. (You can try this at home. Mr. Saran gives the recipe for it in his new cookbook, Indian Home Cooking.)
The tandoor yields grilled Jamison Farm lamb chops, soft and tender (but a little too well-done for my taste), served with potatoes and a sweet-and-sour pear chutney with fennel, cumin, fenugreek leaves and chilies. Those accustomed to dried-out tandoori chicken will find the grilled stuffed chicken rolls (flavored with pickling spices) and the farm-raised chicken wrapped in basil leaves a revelation. Salmon and halibut are baked in a banana leaf to keep them moist.
A good way to sample a selection of dishes is to try one of two seven-course tasting menus, in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions, for $55. With wine pairings, they cost $95. The wine list, chosen by sommelier Joshua Wesson, is first-rate, with an international selection that can stand up to spicy food (a change from the more common choice between Kingfisher and Taj Mahal beers). And in addition to the usual selection of naan, roti and paratha, there is naan stuffed with crab or minced lamb, and kulcha with parmesan and onion.
Dévi has two pastry chefs, Surbhi Sahni (Mr. Mathur’s wife) and James Distefano. The desserts sound Indian but have a distinctly Western touch, and are presented like works of art. They include an ethereal mango cheesecake (it comes with rose sauce, candied mango peel, mango slaw and a mango crisp) and pineapple “three ways”-as a jelly with wine-poached pineapple, a slaw laced with black pepper and a granita made with cilantro. I first had pineapple with cilantro at Bouley Bakery and thought it one of the most daring-and thrilling-desserts I’d come across. But nothing here beats the falooda, a truly great sundae made with vermicelli, honey-soaked basil seeds, coconut tuiles, strawberry and mango sorbets and coconut-lemongrass milk.
One night, our waiter wasn’t from India but (as I guessed from his accent) from France. “You know, I’m really into Indian cuisine now instead of French,” he confessed as he brought us a round of Bombay bel puri and idly upma to start off the meal. He shook his head as if his grand-mère was in the room and had heard him. “Tsk! Tsk!”
8 East 18th Street
noise level: Fine
wine list: International list, around 80 bottles, well-chosen and reasonably priced
credit cards: All major
price range: Lunch, prix fixe, $20 and $25; main courses, $14-$29
lunch: Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m.
dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
* good** very good*** excellent**** outstanding no star poor