Haute Indian

The dining room at Dévi. Photo credit: Kenneth Chen.

In the restless, shadowy world of ethnic restaurants, chefs are always on the move. It’s rare, however, for these wandering, nameless figures to attain the status enjoyed by Suvir Saran and his well-traveled Rajasthani accomplice, Hemant Mathur. The duo made their local reputation last year at Amma, in Turtle Bay, where they served up an artful version of Pan-Indian cuisine (tandoori lamb chops, spicy Goan shrimp, Bombay bhel puri rendered in decorative little towers) before vanishing into the ether. Now they have reappeared at an ambitious new restaurant called Dévi, on 18th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Dévi is owned by the successful Baluchi’s Indian-restaurant empire, and seems to have been conceived, very consciously, as a flagship establishment. The room is decorated with wall-length saffron-colored curtains and a ceiling full of hand-painted lanterns imported from the subcontinent. Most important of all, however, are the two new chefs in the kitchen. In baseball terms, they are the Baluchi’s chain’s big-money off-season acquisitions, the curry-hound equivalent of A-Rod and Gary Sheffield.

With two new restaurants in two years, however, the question for these top-flight chefs, unlike top-flight ballplayers, is not so much whether they can produce, it’s whether they can produce in a new and interesting way. At least that was the question circulating among the curry hounds at our table as we sipped sticky $12 fusion cocktail drinks (try the Ambika, or the Gin Petal, which has the rosy color of liquid hand cream) and admired all the usual Indian-restaurant frippery on display at Dévi. The very helpful, unobtrusive wait staff are dressed in identical loose-fitting saffron-colored costumes, like the members of some gentle religious sect. A wood-carved doorway has been built around the entrance of what used to be an old downtown deli, and along with the gauzy red curtains (red is said to promote a healthy appetite) and twinkling lanterns, the proprietors have constructed a stone stairway the color of spun sugar, which leads up to a kind of discreet, Mughal-like chamber in the rafters.

Mathur’s patented tandoori lamb chops are on the menu here; this time they’re organic. Bhel puri, which in India is dispensed in sheafs of newspaper, has been similarly gussied up to resemble a tidy little pyramid, and another light Indian snack, called mung-bean chaat, is constructed as it was at Amma, in fancy Alfred Portale–style layers. The chefs have added a new samosa to their appetizer repertoire (it’s shaped like a half-moon and stuffed with ground turkey), along with a creamy, crunchy helping of lotus seeds (described by my waiter as “Indian popcorn”) and a superior dish of cauliflower, which is covered in a tangy Manchurian tomato sauce like some ethereal vegetarian version of sweet-and-sour pork. There’s a racy new onions-and-Parmesan-cheese version of the puffy bread called kulcha, and if you want to live dangerously, ask for the veal-brain-and-liver bruschetta, a Fifth Avenue adaptation of a Muslim breakfast delicacy (the savory jellied brain is scrambled with quail eggs and green chilies), which Mathur and Saran suggest you savor with a glass of Monte Xanic, a Merlot-Cabernet blend from Baja California.

These bruschetta are available on the tasting menu only ($55, without wines), and if you want to sample the impressive selection of Indian food at Dévi, this is the way to go. For the vegetarian, there are thatches of frizzled okra (kararee bihindi), and tender baby eggplants floating in a curry-leaf peanut sauce. For dainty eaters, there’s a delicate Parsi dish of halibut steamed in mint and coconut sauce, and for fierce curry aficionados there’s chicken smothered in a fiery pepper sauce from the Malabar coast. There are also gargantuan lamb shanks studded with lotus roots, giant tandoori prawns flown in from Sri Lanka, and leaning towers of tender salmon interspersed with okra and spicy tomato sauce. For dessert, pastry chef Surbhi Sahni has concocted a decadent version of kulfi (the Indian ice cream made with condensed milk), a mango cheesecake, and a “Tasting of Creams,” which includes an inventive version of panna cotta flavored with chai. The cheesecake used to be a staple at Amma, but other desserts are new. In the end, the curry hounds agreed, it doesn’t matter. Unlike Sheffield and Rodriguez, Saran and Mathur always produce.

Scott Conant, another of the city’s more productive chefs (proprietor of the East Side Italian restaurant L’Impero), also has a new dining establishment on the market. It’s called Bar Tonno, and it’s a small palate-cleanser of a place devoted to the growing cult of crudo—which, in case you missed it, is the precious, Italianate version of sashimi. The entire restaurant consists of a single long, glimmering bar hidden behind a discreet, smoked-glass doorway on a small street on the eastern fringes of Soho. The bar runs the length of the room and is made of a strip of shiny, laminated wood that looks like it’s been ripped from the side of some newly minted luxury yacht in the waters off Capri. There are mini backlit towers of wine bottles stacked behind the bar, and each place is set with a spotless wineglass and crisp, white linens. Flutes of champagne are offered before each meal, and little stacks of focaccia for clearing the palate. There are only ten or twelve items on the daily changing menu. All of them are fish, most of them are raw, and if you order the entire menu in one sitting, you’ll probably still have room left over for a proper dinner.

But then Bar Tonno is less about regular dining per se than about the mannered, highly stylized pleasures of tasting. And if you taste just one thing, make it the lobster “Susci,” a decadent dish made with mounds of plump, buttery lobster touched with a rich Sicilian tomato sauce mixed with olive oil, capers, and a sprinkling of sea salt. There are also little mounds of bay scallops served over warm leeks, and platoons of sweet Alaskan prawns that cost roughly $4 a bite and are almost worth it. The $14 toro was surprisingly chewy on the evening I sampled it, and the accompanying sea-urchin emulsion gave it an unpleasantly funky, cat-food smell. But most of the things on the menu are good, especially the red orata (a Mediterranean version of sea bream), served with a small salad of chanterelles, and the fat pieces of kampachi (the Japanese name for yellowtail), painted with an olive oil tasting faintly of ginger. The desserts are negligible—a cheese plate, a sesame cannelloni—so save your money for the wines, particularly the whites, which are interesting and varied but not very cheap.

Ideal meal: Manchurian cauliflower, tandoori lamb chops, kulfi with citrus soup.
Note: For a healthful culinary tour of the subcontinent, try the vegetarian tasting menu.

Bar Tonno
Ideal Meal: Red orata, kampachi, lobster “Susci.”
Note: The menu rarely exceeds twelve items. If you can’t decide what to order, do what I did, and order the whole thing for a little over $100.

8 East 18th Street; 212-691-1300.

Bar Tonno
17 Cleveland Place; 212-966-7334.

Dévi, 8 E. 18th St., bet. Fifth Ave. and Broadway; 212-691-1300

Hours: Lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 P.M. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $12; entrées, $14 to $29.

Bar Tonno, 17 Cleveland Pl., nr. Kenmare St.; 212-966-7334

Hours: 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

Prices: $4 to $14.

Haute Indian