Since it opened a year and a half ago, Tabla -- Danny Meyer's South Asian experiment, a formal mezzanine dining room with an innovative Indian-American fusion menu -- has garnered more than its share of the spotlight, dwarfing its casual, less expensive sister restaurant downstairs. Bread Bar (11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street; 212-889-0667) has been taken too literally, perhaps, misconstrued as simply a place to nibble novelty-item nans and dips with a thematic cocktail or two, or as a holding pen for incomplete parties to gather in before traipsing upstairs.
That's unfortunate, since the humbler quarters of two-in-one restaurants, a format popularized by Meyer's own Gramercy Tavern, are a favorite off-hours refuge of the Underground Gourmet. Pair a fabulous, special-occasion restaurant with a place that you can stumble into, without reservations or a fat expense account but with the prospect of an inspired meal masterminded by the genius behind those extravagant tasting menus for the high-flying folks in the next room, and you can't help feeling like you're getting away with something. Think Alice Waters at austere Chez Panisse, with its freewheeling upstairs café. Or Rick Bayless's Topolobampo and more economical Frontera Grill in Chicago. Chef Floyd Cardoz has been doing the same thing (without, thus far, commensurate recognition) at Bread Bar, and over the past few months, he's rejiggered the menu, attempting to reposition the attractive, comfortable room as its own, moderately priced dining entity ($13.50 to $18.50 for main courses, versus the upstairs prix fixe, ranging from $54 to $85).
How, exactly? By creating a greater distance between Tabla and Bread Bar than the length of a staircase -- keeping upstairs haute and nudging downstairs, formerly more of a nouvelle knockoff, into the cozy constructs of "home-style."
"If you ask any Indian where to get the best Indian food," Cardoz says, "they won't tell you a restaurant. They'll say, At home." So he's larded Bread Bar's new menu with familiar-sounding, dressed-down dishes that aspire less to break new ground than to rekindle old taste memories, specifically his own. The Bread Bar's former fowl, tandoori poussin with onion confit, for example, has made way for the chicken tikka Cardoz cooks for his kids in his backyard. But he distinguishes his upmarket rendition from the all-too-dehydrated, flame-colored norm by cooking the juicy boutique Murray's organic bird to order, and omitting the telltale tandoori rang, a natural red dye, from the marinade of yogurt, curry leaves, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. Likewise, the old menu's spice-rubbed tandoori lamb has been supplanted by the pulled-lamb-and-mustard-mashed-potato sandwich, a snack, the new menu tells us, "traditionally sold by street vendors in Bombay" patronized by college students (like the young Cardoz) on study breaks.
Sure, all this new whimsical, folksy menu narrative is a selling tactic, as is Cardoz's wont to translate it into American comfort-foody lingo. After all, what would you really rather have for dinner? What the new menu headlines as Indian pot roast with cayenne onion rings, or what its small-print description identifies as "beef assad"? They're the same thing, but Cardoz and his copywriters pull all the right semantic strings. The powerfully flavored dish -- oven-braised-then-pan-fried caramelized beef seasoned with clove and turmeric -- is not only "a culinary legacy of the British and Portuguese colonists" but Cardoz's mom's own recipe. He's taken more liberties with his college days' lamb sandwich, which became the inspiration for his irresistible flavor-packed version: peppery lamb and fiery chilis, slathered with pungent, mustard-laced mashed potatoes and a sprinkle of lime juice on rosemary nan, served with a balm of cool mint raita -- a stellar combination. And since Bread Bar is, the menu tells us, "an homage to . . . the familiar flavors of his Goan home," Cardoz has concocted a seafood-laden spaghettini dish, integrating that coastal state's shellfish with the pasta "introduced by soldiers stationed in India during World War II," and a tequila-infused shrimp cocktail revved up with clove, ginger, and cayenne.
Make no mistake: Bread Bar doesn't aspire to replicate an authentic Indian home-cooked meal. If it did, all the food would be served at once, and bread or rice would be included. (They aren't. But you should still order at least one of the signature tandoor-baked breads now relegated to a corner of the menu.) Cardoz wants to make us stop equating cheap Indian with characterless curry and those tired trays of dal, mango chutney, and papadum. Bread Bar has staked a solitary claim to the middle ground, expensive for Indian food as we know it but cheap for Floyd Cardoz food, whatever he chooses to call it. Comfort food, after all, is an international language.