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Indian Love Song 

A progressive meal through three Indian places with a knowledgeable companion

Wednesday, Oct 13 2004
Earlier this year I had a fabulous and uniquely interesting meal: an Indian tasting menu, idiosyncratic and chef-driven, in a small restaurant off the beaten track in a not particularly chic part of New York City. It was a weeknight, and the small place was packed -- completely booked, in fact. I saw lots of parties regretfully turned away, some that seemed to be passers-by looking for curry in a neighborhood spot, others that appeared to be eager foodies hoping to luck into a table at an eatery of the moment. The many supplicants didn't distract me from the exciting dishes arriving at the table. Instead they enhanced the feeling of discovery and surprise I had with nearly every dish, from the unfamiliar (crispy flash-fried spinach leaves, vinegared-and-chilied salmon steamed in a banana leaf) to the seemingly familiar (a succulent and juicy tandoori lamb chop sided with a homemade pear chutney, and the apotheosis of bhel puri, a dish that manages to combine the best aspects of a crisp salad and a salty, crunchy snack) to the witty and heretofore unheard-of (three kinds of rice, casually offered, in red, yellow, and green, flavored with tomato, lemon, and mint). I was further impressed by the well-thought-out wine pairings on offer, because restaurants serving this spicy cuisine rarely boast any kind of cellar, much less one containing bottles that can enhance the food. I've never eaten such personal, thoughtful, and rigorous Indian cooking.

It's not coyness that keeps me from mentioning the name of the restaurant, but rather the reality of the marketplace: Suvir Saran, the young chef who was cooking on that magical night at Amma in midtown Manhattan, has since moved on to his own place, Dévi, which just opened on Union Square in NYC (which is on the short-list of those that have opened there since my last visit that I'm dying to try, along with the Spotted Pig, Casa Mono, and Bar Jamon, to name just a few). He has also just written his first cookbook, Indian Home Cooking, with Stephanie Lyness, and when I learned he would be in the Bay Area for a few days, speaking and cooking at a conference on healthy flavors at the Culinary Institute of America and doing press for his book, I leapt at the chance to have a meal with him.

Or, to be truthful, a series of meals. I envisioned a progressive dinner -- trying a few dishes at several modest Indian places of local renown, enlisting the expertise of this cosmopolitan chef, whose restaurant and cookbook offer both northern and southern dishes, to learn whether some of those I enjoy are merely tasty or actually authentic.

I was surprised to learn from Indian Home Cooking that Suvir is a vegetarian. And further surprised, when I called to make arrangements to pick him and his friend Charlie up for dinner, to find out that one of his grandmothers lived in San Francisco, in the Marina, for many years. "I'm looking out the window at her lemon tree; she froze its juice so she'd had fresh lemon juice all year round," he told me, nostalgically.

Our first stop was at Bombay Ice Cream and Chaat. "I've only ever eaten the ice cream here," I said, though I've been assiduously working my way through the more than two dozen on offer; I recommended the rose and saffron flavors as we ordered most of the chaat menu. (Chaat literally means "to lick," but it's also come to mean a range of Indian street or snack foods.) Suvir was excited to see that Bombay had falooda, a sort of milkshake with noodles that I hadn't yet tried, partly because the wall-mounted menu is a series of lists without definitions. "I insisted that we have falooda on Dévi's dessert menu," Suvir said impishly, "even though it drove our pastry chef nuts -- she thought it was beneath her. I told her she could make her own ice creams from scratch, whatever, but we had to have it. And people love it." I certainly loved this rich, gooey version made with saffron pistachio, cardamom, and mango ice cream, with translucent chewy noodles, crunchy basil seeds, and a layer of fragrant rose syrup. It was a cooling counterpart to our plates of aloo puri, a puffy potato fritter served with the traditional coriander-mint and tamarind sauces and coriander (cilantro) leaves; dal puri, which added yogurt to the dish; sev puri, with crispy chickpea noodles; bhel puri, in a version crunchy with lots of chopped onion and featuring the threadlike sev noodles rather than the crisp puffed rice I've had elsewhere; and pani i puri, a plate of golgothas, little hollow puffs that you fill with chopped boiled potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and coriander sauces, and a special thin, acidic mint sauce. The idea is to eat the liquid-filled puri all in one bite, which I managed on my third try. "This is better than the chaat houses in New York," Suvir said, making me quite happy, in a rather fatuous and San Francisco-centric way.

I intended for us to jump right into the car and drive off to stops two and three on the Indian food train, but we were in the Mission, and the lure of the taqueria was too strong: Suvir wanted Charlie to taste another kind of snack food that's yet to make real inroads into Manhattan. We started out rather weakly at La Cumbre, with a depressingly mayonnaise-squirted vegetarian burrito; picked up steam at Pancho Villa, where Suvir admired the generosity of the salsa and condiments bar, with a much better vegetarian burrito supreme and a carne asada burrito; and finished strong at Taqueria Can-Cun, Suvir's longtime favorite (and mine, too), where the al pastor pork taco with sliced fresh avocado reminded me once again that I prefer the small soft tacos to the big burritos, which bury the good grilled meats in too much stodge. (Suvir is the kind of vegetarian who will taste a bit of meat, and "I love foie gras," he sighed.)

Our hunger was piqued when we arrived at the Tenderloin branch of Naan 'N' Curry by a sign offering a special curry of chilies (Miichi Ka Salan). When a lamb curry mysteriously arrived at our table instead of the karayla chicken (cooked with bitter melon) we'd ordered, Suvir bonded with the manager, who not only left the lamb as a gift, but also insisted on offering us, in addition to the intriguing chicken, a small portion of chicken tikka masala, also known as butter chicken. "We are famous all over the world for this dish," he said proudly, though the thought of the world beating a path to the door of this exceedingly grungy establishment gives one pause. (Its two rooms have elements of the thrift store and an English dosshouse, with rather casual attempts at décor, but you can't beat the prices.) Suvir was quite a bit happier here than I thought he would be: He loved the chilies ("It's a Hyderabad dish, a Hindu and Muslim mixture"), and thought that the butter chicken, boneless chunks in a thick creamy yellow sauce, was "absolutely right -- you can really taste the butter." And he was impressed by the plain and garlic naans we had, too.

I'd saved my favorite place for last -- Shalimar, just around the corner -- but though Suvir was once again impressed with the breads (we gobbled up all the puffy, dense onion kulcha and the garlic naan), he was less pleased with the okra ("There's too much oil," he said, "and they're overcooked"). He hadn't objected to the lake of oil the chilies had swum in at Naan 'N' Curry, but then I remembered his crisp, greaseless fried okra at Amma. Suvir approved of the rarely seen lamb brain masala, which I adored, a mild, lightly tomatoed, soft-textured dish.

We finished our marathon meal with dessert and drinks at Absinthe, because Citizen Cake was just closing its doors as we drove up (Suvir had cooked at some charity event with its pastry chef, Elizabeth Falkner, so we admired her beautiful creations through the window and goggled at the witty desserts listed on the menu posted outside). "Seven restaurants!" Suvir exclaimed. "I think it's a record for me." We wished we could have included two of my East Bay favorites, ViK's Chaat Corner and Udupi Palace, a southern Indian vegetarian restaurant that I think would be right up Suvir's alley.

I searched Indian Home Cooking when I got back to my own little home; there were the tandoori lamb chops, the crisp whole okra with fennel and coriander, the lemon rice I'd loved, as well as lots of delicious-sounding dishes -- scrambled tofu with Indian spices, salmon with coconut and cilantro, lamb biryani with orange, among others -- that I'd never tasted. The recipes will have to suffice until I can visit Dévi.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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