Is the age of the upstairs-downstairs bipartisan restaurant—casual on one floor, superdeluxe on another—coming to a close? Last fall Tabla, the spiciest place to eat in the Danny Meyer collection, forsook its split personality. After 11 years, the Bread Bar has gone and Tabla is one.
The change is a purely psychological ploy, designed to make the entire place more welcoming. The physical setup remains the same—formal, tableclothed seating upstairs; rambunctious, tavern-style dining below. But the menu on both floors is now identical, a seamless melding of the Bread Bar’s traditional Indian fare and chef Floyd Cardoz’s fancy-pants fusion, a high-low pairing that, like jeans and pearls, actually works.
Cardoz, who grew up in Goa (a former Portuguese trading post with its own Indo-European food traditions) is one of the world’s foremost practitioners of Indian cuisine, a spice guru introducing fiery flavors into a fine-dining setting. His dexterity in multicultural cross-pollination—at Tabla, fusion isn’t a dirty word—is as much a product of nurture as nature. The chef seems to have been born with the palate equivalent of perfect pitch, but it’s the Goan stew of Portuguese, Anglo, Maharashtrian, Gujarati and Konkani influences that’s informed how he’s used it.
Tabla’s sprawling new menu, featuring lower prices on dishes once served only upstairs, includes an outstanding cross-section of regional vegetarian cookery. Tabla’s family-style Wazwan tasting menu (a Wazwan is a traditional Kashmiri feast)—ten dishes, $54 a person—is the best way to get a grasp of the chef’s vegetable wizardry. This mercifully well-paced collection—unlike an Indian buffet, you’re not assaulted by everything at once—includes cool salads (a beautiful North Indian medley of tart Mutsu apples, mung-bean sprouts and crisp chickpea noodles), five-alarm stews (Goan roasted cauliflower in sweet coconut milk; complex, gingery nine-bean dal) and refreshing kulfi pops to help extinguish the fire.
Though you won’t go home hungry on a vegetable regimen, you’ll miss out on many of the chef’s most compelling melting-pot innovations. Cardoz finds inspiration all over the map—sashimi from Japan, pasta from Italy—but the underlying character remains unquestionably Indian.
Hamachi slices, mildly cured with ginger sugar and just kissed by a blowtorch flame, are shingled between hearts of palm sheets (a Goan staple) and infused with a subtropical kick. A delicate open-faced raviolo arrives in a chutneylike tomato rag with spiced winter greens and tender yogurt-glazed boneless lamb riblets. Boodie’s chicken-liver masala, named for the chef’s mother, is a rich, piquant, purely Indian starter beautifully enlivened with smoked bacon and apples.
Presentation pyrotechnics seem to have been toned down somewhat for the Tabla mainstays, bringing the most effete, composed entres more in line with their rustic counterparts. The clever bridging of multiple traditions is nowhere more evident than in an Anglo-Indian medley of roasted lamb and mint, supremely tender Elysian Fields meat paired with a tangy, minty pilaf of cracked wheat. Cardoz has few peers as a trailblazer with grains and legumes. His tapioca pilaf tossed with pea greens and peanuts is just as much of a dazzler as the falling-off-the-bone sweet-spicy oxtail served alongside it. Desserts—tiny scoops of intense mango ice cream with meringue kisses and caramel, a refreshing semifrozen Indian-style coconut rice pudding—owe as much to the subcontinent as everything else.
Meyer and Cardoz, equal partners in this expertly run enterprise, had the good sense after a decade to chart a new course. The old Tabla is dead; long live the new one.
Drink this: Tabla’s fiery fare is well suited to beer. The large draft selection of regional choices includes Captain Lawrence Brown Bird Ale ($8), a fine malty brew from just north of the city.
Eat this: Wazwan menu, Boodie’s chicken liver masala, lamb with cracked-wheat pilaf, oxtails with tapioca pilaf, mango ice-cream sundae
Sit here: The more casual and lively ground-floor tables are better suited to the new have-it-your-way menu. Head upstairs for a more sedate tte--tte.
Conversation piece: Floyd Cardoz studied to be a biochemist before discovering his passion for cooking.
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