Maybe I've just never gotten over Gandhi beating out E.T. for Best Picture, but I just can't bring myself to love Indian food. Surely, as a critic, it is wiser to hold one's cards a fork-length from one's chest, but it's dishonest to pretend an equal preference for all the world's kitchens, especially since I've continually feared that if I fail to live honorably in this world, my purgatory in the next will be a perfect facsimile of Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues. Of course, there are exceptions. I've had fine meals at Chola and Jackson Diner. And each time the wheel of trendy-restaurant fortune stops on Indian food, I head to a fresh outpost, like Ismail Merchant's Pondicherry, full of optimism. And then I encounter more Raj-kill -- a chicken breast shrouded in sauce the color, density, and flavor of English banker flannels -- and resume my apparently futile search.
Finally, it's over. It would be diminishing to categorize Floyd Cardoz's deliciously clean Goan-spiced Maine crab cake or his exquisite, indulgent pairing of Hudson Valley seared foie gras with a black-pepper, anise, and pear compote as nouvelle Delhi. However, at Tabla this angelically shy yet enthusiastic young chef has forged a fascinating and often deliriously satisfying union of this country's abundant produce with the strong, heady spices and bewitchingly pungent condiments and marinades of his homeland. Purists can carp that Cardoz's wondrously rich duck-and-potato samosa and his bone-suckingly superb braised oxtail with tapioca and beets are not authentic. And they're right -- just as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's irresistible victuals at Vong aren't really Thai. God help those who choose pedigree over pleasure. What matters is that Tabla is a delightful surprise, unlike anything else in town. So, live without the mulligatawny for one night. You won't miss the sitar music or Siva statues either.
Much has already been written about Tabla, since it's the second of two new restaurants in the historic Metropolitan Life Tower (the first being Eleven Madison Park) created by Danny Meyer, the relentlessly attentive proprietor of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. Breitling-dependable as Union Square is, it's a cool place, functioning as if cued to a metronome. Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park conform to the same impeccable, every-slicked-back-hair-in-place image.
But Tabla's not like that. What you note first is the radical departure in design; right angles begone. With its suspended second floor built around a "viewing well" that sneaks a peak at ground level, Tabla is all curves and swoops. White is banished, replaced by deep brushed metals, abundant redwood stain, and sponged walls in rich, vegetable-dye pigments that are a bit easier to deal with in the evening. It's a busy landscape, and the overhead halogens upstairs can cast unkind facial shadows (only Dietrich ever benefited from being lit this way), yet this uncharacteristic lack of moderation has produced two rooms, upstairs and downstairs, that are more relaxed and convivial than any other Meyer space. Even his rigorously trained waiters appear more at ease, revealing appealing personalities along with their expected cascades of information.
But one hopes Meyer & Co. are gracious enough to understand that for all their successfully atypical efforts, it is chef Cardoz who has made Tabla such a winning departure. You could eat his tandoori quail with black-pepper glaze in a hosed-down barn and still be stupidly happy. His taro-dusted halibut with white beans is simply spectacular, the ultimate fish and chips. The airy greens and sheep's-milk fritters in the house salad might float away if it weren't for piquant droplets of curry-lime vinaigrette. And a devilish mustard-oil-red-pepper coulis allows seared scallops to start velvety, then bite back.
Occasionally, the East-West alchemy becomes forced, like one of those scenes in American remakes of foreign-language films when the humor just doesn't translate. Braised lamb shank in black pepper is curiously flat, as if the meat's natural flavor has been neutered. The wild-mushroom soup has a balance so subtle it can't be detected piping-hot, and by the time it cools, interest has waned. Beautifully aged sirloin resists a coriander-and-mustard crust. And mustard fettuccine with braised veal, baby spinach, and tomato kasundi is almost as busy as the first-floor ceiling's metallic basket weave. Something's got to go (in both cases). But veal loin with marrow-and-garlic jus is lushly distracting. A roasted poussin is vividly enhanced by black spice and yellowfoot chanterelles. Black bass in a maple-tamarind glaze, flaked with rice and seated precariously atop pea greens, has the sleek elegance of a vintage XKE on a straightaway. And thanks to a brazen coconut-coriander curry, going to City Island for lobster won't ever be as exciting again.
For the no-reservations dining area downstairs in the Bread Bar, Cardoz's completely separate menu lets you pile spiky grape-pine-nut and tomato-kalonji chutneys, a spunky lemon-chive raita, or guacamole with toasted cumin atop a host of chompable breads: horseradish taftan, buckwheat-and-honey or pumpernickel-caper roti, wheat parantha, plus a tantalizing rosemary-olive-oil naan. The lower-level combinations are lighter and more playful than those upstairs, as in a feisty rabbit pan roll with apple chutney, a spotlight-grabbing bowl of mussels steamed in kokum and ginger, and a chilly-scenes-of-winter-ridding bowl of lentil soup thickened by basmati rice. Cardoz's spice-rubbed tandoori lamb downstairs is superior to its second-level cousin, and the tandoor black bass is its upper-bunk rival's equal.
The two dessert menus had me debating whether to run up for the crunchy chocolate date cake, down for the triumphant vanilla-bean kulfi bathed in glistening blood-orange rose water, back up for crackling caraway crust surrounding a lovely apple tart or the spicy cornmeal crust under an unnervingly fine sweet-potato cheesecake, or to descend again for a special cardamom-tarted carrot cake. But then I realized there's no hurry; I'll be coming back. I have found my passage to India.
Tabla, 11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street (889-0667). Mondays through Thursdays noon to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays till 11:30 p.m. (At the Bread Bar, entrées are $14.50 to $21; at Tabla, lunch entrées are $17 to $23 and dinner is prix fixe only, $48). All major credit cards.