I'm a sample-sale junkie, so I love the discount prices and no-reservation spontaneity of bar menus. Back from two months in India, I am eager to sample what's up in Tabla's Bread Bar. Many Indian friends loathe Tabla, just as many Japanese fail to appreciate Nobu's riskier acrobatics. Not me. There is room in my life for all the perfumes of the world authentically disposed or brilliantly borrowed, as in chef Floyd Cardoz's braised oxtail with tapioca and beets and the taro-crusted red snapper with white beans on a peppery sweet-and-sour puddle.
Meeting friends for lunch upstairs, I arrive early for a prologue at the bar. Time to appreciate a worm's-eye view of Robert Kushner's vegetable mosaics high above my head. I ask the bartender if she can do a virgin Masala Mary, and next thing you know we're buddies. She's sharing her address for the best jerk chicken in town, and I'm praising the potion's brilliant spicing, as well as a spice-smoked-salmon-tandoori "pizza" I just had to order.
Returning for lunch with three friends, we quickly dab up every drop of grape-and-pine-nut chutney, lemon-chive raita, the cumin-chile-scented cheddar melt, and a slightly musty guacamole (cumin does that) with various chips and naans and layered paratha breads. A pair of near-pizzas -- Goan spiced-mushroom with cheddar fondue on a mustard-seed-garlic-corn roti and the feverish tomato-with-sheep's-milk-cheese on paratha -- are hits, too. No, it's not pizza and it's not very Indian, but these zesty mutants are tangy, penny-pinchingly shareable. The powerful lobster soup in a handsome blue ceramic bowl proves to be a more successful fusion than the potato-apple-tamarind salad. The slightly chintzy portion of spice-rubbed lamb needs bread alongside, and a chutney too. Mung-bean-and-wild-mushroom risotto could use another flavor note -- a surprising lapse from a chef so gifted at layering spices, as in today's sensational tandoori baby eggplant with its lively tomato chutney and lotus-root chips.
Who would have guessed that cardamom was just what carrot cake lacks? And I can't recall a kulfi (India's often chalky ice cream) more suited to Häagen Dazs-honed taste than this pyramid with its flutter of edible gold leaf on top. True, we've spent too much -- $50 each. Entrées range from $13.50 to $17.50, but starters at $6.50 to $11, designer water, and extra condiments can pad the bill. For me, that Masala Mary and the tomato-kalonji "pizza" alone would make a sane and satisfying off-price lunch.
Tabla's Bread Bar, 11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street (889-0667). Monday through Thursday noon to 11 p.m., Friday till 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.