Perhaps you don’t know what frik is. Or maybe you do know what frik is (it’s an Egyptian variation of bulgur, the cracked-wheat product) but you have never had the pleasure of dining on a good, steamy plate of frik. Then what about Urfa biber? When I asked a couple of chef friends whether they’d ever heard of this cryptic, slightly menacing-sounding word, they said they had not. It’s a variety of Turkish pepper, it turns out, and you can find it worked into the menu, along with frik and many other exotic and arcane spices and ingredients, at a new restaurant called Kalustyan’s Café. Kalustyan’s Café is both an offshoot of and a showplace for Kalustyan’s, the renowned spice store on lower Lexington Avenue. The two establishments are a mere two storefronts (plus a busy, taxi-filled street) apart, so that it is possible to travel between them (up or down the culinary food chain, as it were), browsing among the brightly colored bags of frik and Urfa biber and saffron in one, then seeing them come alive on the plate in the other.
The industrious owners of Kalustyan’s have been in the café business before, but this is their most ambitious venture to date. Although there’s a statue of the rotund Hindu god Ganesh in the back, the sleek little restaurant is decorated with crimson- and saffron-colored lanterns, which separate it from the gritty neighborhood curry joints and give the space a worldly, uptown glow. There’s a modest bar where you can imbibe vividly yellow sake cocktails colored with saffron, and flutes of champagne tipped with the tart Asian lime called calamansi. The food is “Indian-influenced,” as opposed to Indian, which means the waitresses bring little wheels of nan bread flecked with rosemary to the table, and flat, buttered corn-bread rotis that taste like a not entirely happy marriage between pita bread and a corn-bread taco. To whet the appetite, there are pastries stuffed with curry and coriander-flavored chicken (with a yogurt-and-cilantro dipping sauce), and helpings of peppery tandoori shrimp and thyme-flavored pieces of chicken tikka, both served on swanky glass trays shaped like long bars of soap.
“Who knew that grilled skate wing went nicely with a hot, red smear of sambal?”
The architect of these interesting dishes is Mohan Ismail, who joins the mini Kalustyan empire after stints at Spice Market and the Indian fusion restaurant Tabla. Every cook grapples with the urge to embroider his recipes with too many spices, but Ismail does a solid job of displaying the impressive variety of the Kalustyan catalogue without sending his customers bolting for the exits. Who knew that grilled skate wing went nicely with a hot, red smear of sambal (it’s a paste of crushed chilies popular in Southeast Asia), or that chunks of veal taste very fine braised in a tame tomato version of curry vindaloo? As for the frik, it’s tossed with raisins, slices of green pistachio, and myriad other exotic Kalustyan products, then served under lemony slices of duck breast. The Urfa biber is one ingredient in a complicated and quite delicious chicken entrée composed of two pieces of oven- baked chicken laid over a savory brown mash of what appear to be lentils but are in fact eight different varieties of nuts, seasoned with an intricate collection of chilies from around the globe.
This kind of fusion cooking usually involves mishaps, and the menu at Kalustyan’s Café contains a few. The wild striped bass (crusted with a form of popped rice called poha) was dry, although I enjoyed the eggplant stew it came with. A nice cut of strip steak was unaccountably drowned in carrot jus, and the vegetable items I sampled (an indistinct vegetable congee dish, a standard ratatouille served over a pot of Chinese black rice) were strangely inert for a place so focused on Indian cooking. On the other hand, the Lobster Inspiration was, in fact, semi-inspirational (it’s doused with lime and fennel pollen and floated, with egg noodles, in a bowl of saffron broth), and the desserts are more than edible for an Asian-fusion joint. There are mini-boxes of chocolate filled with perfumed deposits of rose-petal syrup, and a pot of unusual ice creams (anise, walnut) enlivened with dulce de leche. Most unusual of all, however, is the betel-leaf panna cotta. It tastes like betel leaf, I suppose, but it goes down easily, like a glamorous form of baby porridge shipped in from the kitchens of old Ceylon.
Ixta, which opened several months ago on an anonymous stretch of 29th Street off Park Avenue, is another small restaurant with outsize culinary ambitions. There’s a swaying potted palm frond outside the door, and the room itself is matchbox-size, with a snug little tequila bar on one side and a single long banquette and row of cocktail tables on the other. As at Kalustyan’s, the chef, Linda Japngie, has an experimental, internationalist bent, although instead of attempting to incorporate all the spices in the known world into her menu, she focuses her talents on the food of Mexico. Which means you can choose from an addling array of bright, very sweet tequila drinks (the restaurant also advertises itself as a tequila bar), before picking through an assortment of Nuevo Mexicano treats like shredded-chicken tamales (with salsa verde), soft round chalupas layered with grilled mushrooms and crumblings of goat cheese, and little madeleinelike quesadillas shaped like half-moons and stuffed with squash blossoms.
Japngie used to be food czar of the Jimmy Rodriguez nightclub franchises (Jimmy’s Uptown, Downtown, etc.), but now she seems to relish working on a smaller scale. The appetizers are all competent, but my favorite was a dish called Blooming Diver Scallops, consisting of seared scallops cut at the top to look like flowers and set over a tequila-and-serrano-pepper sauce called salsa borracha. Among the entrées, there’s a nice lamb dish rolled in coriander and served with creamy jalapeños and crushed avocado, and slices of spicy strip steak laid over a pool of fresh creamed corn tinged with poblano chili. Order shrimp and you’ll find it stuffed with chipotle-seasoned crab, and the chicken comes with more forest mushrooms and melted deposits of queso fresco. The Mexican-fusion desserts tend to be sweet and clunky in a uniformly inoffensive way (the sweetest and clunkiest being something called a Margarita Meringue Pie), and if you have to choose just one, try the cinnamon churros, which are crisp and warm and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and apple marmalade.