There’s an unbridled quality to a good curry feast, a kind of unhinging of the appetites. Well-spiced Indian food drives a certain kind of eater (namely, me) to heights of piggery and excess. It revs you up, like antifreeze in a sputtering engine, and primes you for more. “It makes you want to dive in,” said one of the grizzled curry veterans I’d assembled at Ada, the city’s newest example of high-style Indian dining. This connoisseur grew up in Delhi and felt that the best kind of Indian cuisine created the sense of being swept along on a kind of Wild Toad culinary ride. In his childhood meals (and the ones that arrived from the local takeout), there were flaky kulchas and nans to dip in your curries, and bowls of chutney and yogurt to mix with them. The classic Indian meal is a madcap, group event, with crispy bhajis to nibble before your tandoori arrives, and pillows of basmati rice to leaven the scorching lamb vindaloo when it gets too hot. “You want to take a bath in Indian food,” he said, smacking his lips as he inspected the restaurant’s very ornate menu. “You want to come a little unleashed.”
But the proprietors of Ada (pronounced ah-DAAHH) clearly have a more refined concept in mind. The name means “style” in Urdu, and the restaurant occupies the same duplex that used to house Girafe. It sits on the south side of 58th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, where most of Manhattan’s first-class Indian dining spots (Chola, Dawat) are clustered, like sea lions on a rock. But instead of exhibiting the usual array of Rajasthani temple masks and decorative brass pots, the walls at Ada are adorned with Murano glass light fixtures. There is a marble fireplace by the bar, and the banquettes are covered in muted shades of gray and beige satin. The silverware is French, and the dinner menu, as composed by executive chef Rajender S. Rana (formerly of the Hyatt in New Delhi), consists of two prix fixe options (“Cuisine de Maison,” for $55, and “Cuisine de Palais,” for $65), which read like some strange, culinary negotiation between the Taj Mahal and Versailles.
Take, for instance, my samosa appetizer, which in a different gastronomic dimension might have been plum-size and filled with savory meat or curried potatoes and peas. But chef Rana’s samosas were little hors d’oeuvre. They were stuffed with meat on the lunch menu but with a very un-Punjabi filling of shiitake mushrooms at dinner. Both dishes appeared on a warmish bed of arugula-and-spinach salad, and were clearly meant to be eaten with a knife and fork, in tiny bites, between sips of Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay. Another appetizer, called crab Malabar, was an odd, spicy blend of peeky-toe crab wrapped, taco-style, in a cone of papadum. And between courses, our table of ravenous curryhounds was shocked to see fleets of white-clad waiters with Bollywood hairdos bearing little sorbet intermezzos mingled with trendy, palate-cleansing foams made with coriander or rosemary.
Some of these flowery items were more successful than others. The samosas were good enough, but my crab Malabar was a little bland for such a showy presentation, and the papadum enclosing it was as limp as old newspaper. A crock of wild-mushroom biryani (sealed with an unimposing pastry crust) worked fine as a side dish but was, frankly, a rip-off as an entrée on the $65 dinner menu. The Delhi connoisseur dismissed an appetizer of dried-out salmon quenelles as “bat mitzvah food,” and declared that his Kerala fish curry (sea bass crusted with coconut, with tomato-cilantro rice) had been “cosmopolitanized out of existence.” He liked the deliciously smoky Goan baby-back pork ribs better but threatened to grow restive when the waiters didn’t immediately bring several more helpings for the table. I didn’t have that trouble with my lamb-shank vindaloo, a grand, Edwardian joint of meat that would probably have taken an average family in India a week to consume.
Although many of chef Rana’s more diaphanous fusion experiments lacked the punch to stand alone in the stark prix fixe format, his more traditional dishes were superb. We devoured a plate of savory minced-goat seekh kebabs practically before it hit the table. My ginger-mint lamb chops had a melting, honeyed quality that you could taste in the back of your nose. Unlike the small, blowtorched variety of bird so prevalent down in the East Village, chef Rana’s tandoori chicken was tinged with saffron and moist enough to eat with a spoon. My favorite of the fusion entrées was two crunchy-boned quails stuffed with a dense date-and-pistachio pilau. My least favorite was the roasted-eggplant gratiné, an ordinary mass of vegetables dripped in buffalo mozzarella, like some clunky, Madras version of eggplant Parmesan.
The bread, so important to the texture of a satisfying Indian feast, was good enough at Ada, although I kept craving more of it as the waiters whisked to and fro with their dainty succession of intermezzos and amuse-bouches. “The bottom line is, don’t come here if you’re hungry,” said Mr. Delhi, gnawing on a lamb bone. The desserts, while decorative, didn’t do much to alleviate this general sense of blight. There were tasteful sorbets made with green apple and shavings of coconut, and a fragile little degustation constructed with chocolate and a hint of chai tea. But even these minor epiphanies were blotted out by the outrageous tab ($600 for five, including the tip and a good bottle of Barolo wine) I received at the end of my Ada experience. That kind of cash probably won’t buy you a cilantro-foam palate cleanser in Jackson Heights. But spread it around judiciously (with the help of your cabdriver), and you’ll have a lot more fun.
208 East 58th Street (212-371-6060). Lunch, Mon.- Fri. noon-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m. Prix fixe lunch, $28; dinner, $55 or $65. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.