A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Friday, June 24, 2005

Jun. 24.

Dinner -

Devi - 8 E. 18th St., Union Square
Cashew Roll (amuse), Manchurian Cauliflower, Tandoor Grilled Jamison Farm Lamb Chops with Pear Chutney and Curry Leaf Potatoes, Mango Cheesecake, a Palindrome (OP Aquavit, fresh pear cider, essence of ginger, Poire Williams, served up with a Bosc pear slice soaked in Navan vanilla cognac), two glasses of a Millbrook Cabernet

Some things are victims of their own success. Just compare Russell Crowe circa-L.A. Confidential to his vase-wielding days now. Look at Williamsburg, whose surge in popularity produced skyrocketing Manhattan-level rents. Consider Tom DeLay, whose shady dealings seem like a symptom of ruling party hubris. And I would add to that list New York’s Restaurant Week, which, in its thirteenth year, seems more like an institution than an innovation.

Many restaurants, seeing the draw of prix-fixe menus, have already incorporated them into their daily offerings. Some of the top restaurants have dropped out, able to fill up their dining rooms without discounts. Others have scaled back their selections to the boring and cheap, crafting pared down dishes specifically for the two week run. Too often, diners miss out on the cuisine that makes the restaurant noteworthy to begin with. (see Apr. 11).

But whatever hesitations I had after my Restaurant Week lunch at Gotham (see Jun. 22) were nullified by my dinner at Devi. The incredible value this fledging restaurant (your choice of any appetizer, entrée and dessert from the regular menu for $35) seemed staggering compared to the number-crunching approach of comparable places. Considering that Devi has been a big hit since its opening in September and is already earning accolades as the best upscale Indian in the city, that’s an act of generosity worth a lot of praise.

I already had a sense that Devi would be a destination. I very much enjoyed the tasting menu at Amma, when chefs Hemant Mathur and Suvir Saran were there. Striking out on their own now, they’ve only expanded their ambitions with a much larger, two-floor space to match. Walking in on Friday night, I was immediately wowed by the atmosphere, which felt elegant and quietly ornate. Vince, his parents and I were seated downstairs in the back by a very friendly and forgiving host (although we'd called, we were still an hour late for a prime time reservation). Similarly, our waiter was friendly and service overall was polished and easygoing. I appreciated that the waiter freely made recommendations from a menu he clearly knew very well.

Still, even with the great deal, attractive décor and able service, the food eclipsed everything. We all started with a complimentary cashew roll, a small, nutty amuse that was simple but delicious. (Again, I have to reiterate, when have you ever heard of getting an amuse for a Restaurant Week dinner!) The Manchurian cauliflower I had as my appetizer was even better, the garlicky red sauce topping the cauliflower blossoms bursting with flavor. It was tangy and complex and addictive and incredibly tasty, relying on the same Sino-Indian influence as Tangra Masala (see Jun. 12, Mar. 26). If my mother had this dish at her disposal, I wouldn’t have resisted eating my vegetables nearly as much.

Yet even the cauliflower couldn’t compete with the lamb chops (regularly a $29 entrée!). Supple and intensely seasoned, it was no surprise that the lamb is one of Devi’s most praised creations. Unique among lamb dishes, it completely fulfilled the mission of upscale Indian, respecting Eastern traditions and ingredients while integrating some Western techniques and inspirations. (Tellingly, Mathur used to work at Diwan Grill, which fuses Indian cooking with French and American.)

Vince, already a veteran of Devi, insisted the four of us pass around our orders and try a little of everything. Everything I sampled was excellent, from Mary’s idly upma to Joe’s pista chicken. When we reached dessert though, there was no need to exchange plates. All of us went with the mango cheesecake, the star dessert at Devi. This too was attractively plated and wonderful tasting, a creative ending engineered by pastry chef Surbhi Sahni.

With every course as fantastic as it was, I would have been more than happy to pay full price for my meal. But that Devi instead gave diners a break and that chef Mathur frequently circulated the room chatting with grateful patrons showed how this restaurant stands apart. The experience not only restored my faith in Restaurant Week-- it also proved that a success can remain as humble but self-assured and as magnanimous but magnificient as Devi. 9/10


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