Manna in Midtown

5 May

MIDTOWN finally has good Indian food. Used to be, New Yorkers had to schlep down to 6th Street, or east to Curry Hill, or even further east to Jackson Heights. Now the executive chef at Dévi, Hemant Mathur, has opened up his own eatery, Tulsi, on E 46th Street. And from the full house on a Wednesday night, four months after its launch, it looks like the neighborhood much appreciates it.

Tulsi’s colors—green, cream and brown—are relaxing and inviting. Those who expect to see a Dévi duplicate are going to be disappointed, but in the best way. As the decor hints and the menu (PDF) reveals, Tulsi is its own restaurant. The shamiana concept lingers, with airy off-white fabrics curtaining off the table from the rest of the diners and providing a measure of privacy. My only squabble, and a minor one, was with a large arrangement of flowers that separated the dining area from the bar space: the impersonation of a bland hotel lobby was unnecessary.

Only a few firm favorites have made their way from Dévi to Tulsi: the tandoori lamb chops, Chef Mathur’s specialty, which have inspired me on numerous occasions to loosen my belt buckle and prepare for a second wind, have thankfully remained on the menu. The Manchurian cauliflower appetizer, delicious and crunchy, makes an appearance. But my eat-till-my-fingers-fall-off dish, the fried okra with slivers of onion and tomato otherwise known as kararee bhindi, is distressingly missing. It has a cameo in a few items, as a side, but I want it in a leading role.

Our appetizers are delicious but not earth-shattering. Regulars at Chef Mathur’s Flatiron kitchen, we want to try the new and exotic. The chaat is yummy; though it doesn’t quite capture that streetside, mixed-by-hand flavor (what restaurant preparation can?), it does the trick nicely. The galauti lamb kebabs are rich with flavor; I can almost feel the table’s collective cholesterol inching up with every successive bite. The samosas (which I didn’t try) seemed to acquit themselves respectably enough, as did the croquettes. But the consensus was that, like a friend with a large personality, there was a bit too much of tamarind to go around: the friend’s company is delightful, but after a while you wish they would leave.

The main courses were truly exciting. What to get, what to get? Parsi fish—you know it as patra ni macchi, the steaming fillet in banana leaves that you unwrap like presents at Parsi weddings—with coconut, cilantro and sesame paste? Semolina-crusted curry monkfish with (gasp!) pomegranate sauce? Tandoori grilled wild boar chops? Tulsi chicken? Savory banana dumplings (I was leaning heavily toward these at first; next time) stuffed with figs and cashews? It went on and on, leaving my eyes giddy with greed.

Tandoori grilled wild boar chops

Tandoori grilled wild boar chops

The "family naan" which our waiter assured us was big enough to feed the table. He didn't specify how big the table had to be.

The "family naan" which our waiter assured us was big enough to feed the table. He didn't specify how big the table had to be.

Finally, and after deep deliberation, we selected patra ni macchi (for where in New York city are you likely to find that again?), arbi ka khatta salan (ditto, and also, if the name sounds this delicious how amazing is this dish going to be?), the wild boar chops, biryani made with jackfruit (a fruit so smelly that my parents failed in their attempts to make me “taste it at least once” in my otherwise adventurous childhood), and the plainly named Tulsi’s dal. Oh, and of course, the “family naan” to mop it all up, that when it came, my tablemates promptly rechristened the “village naan.”

The boar chops brought back sweet memories of the lamb chops, and the slight gamey-ness of the meat contrasted wonderfully with the mushy apple-cranberry chutney. The bright red salan circled an “O” of rice; the taro root delightfully sauced in ginger, peanuts, sesame seeds, and of course, tamarind. The jackfruit biryani comes in a hand-painted pot, over which is baked a crust of naan. The waiter has to cut through the naan before the steaming, moist and aromatic biryani can be scooped out. The jackfruit has a meat-like tendency—or so claimed my vegetarian friends—but proved so delicious they turned meat-eaters for the duration of the meal.

But the undisputed star on the table was the unsung item on our menu: Tulsi’s dal. Naked of extravagant culinary explanations, unadorned even by the customary adjective “kali” or black, those two words did nothing to prepare us for the magnificence of lentils that we had unknowingly ordered. A whiff of the reddish-brown stuff and one could imagine a baby stick of butter sacrificing its life to the greater cause that was this dal. This dal left one unable to eat with eyes open: the second a piece of naan—cradling the dal like a precious life-form, not a drop to be wasted—entered the mouth, the eyes drifted shut, and such sounds of blissful contentment emanated from us that you could be forgiven for thinking something slightly racy was going on beneath the table linens.

By the time the dal arrived, we had already gorged ourselves on the surfeit of food before us. We had rested in between bites, hoping that our stomachs would loosen a wee bit, enough to stuff our faces with some more of this beautiful food. There was no place left in there to fit a runt-sized pea, and yet we ordered a second round of Tulsi’s dal.

And then the desserts arrived. The perfect little mound of kulfi, which we attacked with spoons and forks and whatever implements were handy, is the best I have tasted on this continent, and totally stole the show from the very good pistachio cake, which was supposed to be the main act. Similarly, with the black cardamom chocolate torte, which was a flawless blend of spice and cocoa, the real interest was in the chai-flavored flan—an unusual mix so delectable that even a chai snob such as myself wasted no time and dignity in devouring it. Our last dessert, the ginger panna cotta, artfully laden with poached pears, Campari orange geleé and candied orange zest, though luscious in its own right, was simply outshone by its colleagues (though by the end, only a lick remained).

A good time was had by all, aided perhaps by a nice selection of beer and a short but sweet cocktail list. It took me about 40 minutes of walking and another hour and a half of digesting before I felt able to lie down and go to bed, but when you have food this good (and so much of it), you almost have to do penance later, to earn the privilege of eating it. I can feel myself getting religion already.

Hemant Mathur is the executive chef at Tulsi; Dhandu Ram is the chef de cuisine; and Surbhi Sahni is the pastry chef.

P.S. I apologize for the poor quality of the photographs of the food; they are entirely due to cellphone technology and do not do the food any justice.

One Response to “Manna in Midtown”

  1. Krupa 8 May 2011 at 1:53 PM #

    Jay, the food sounds astounding! Would love to go there the next time I’m in NYC 🙂

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