LTH Home

Devi - High-End Indian in Union Square, New York

Devi - High-End Indian in Union Square, New York
  • Forum HomePost Reply BackTop
  • Devi - High-End Indian in Union Square, New York

    Post #1 - February 13th, 2006, 6:22 pm
    Post #1 - February 13th, 2006, 6:22 pm Post #1 - February 13th, 2006, 6:22 pm
    Airs and Stars New York City Entry #70

    It took several courses before I "got" Devi, the mbitious Indian restaurant, set smack in the Union Square restaurant district. I had considered Devi and Tabla as rough equals in New York's culinary space. Indeed, both have tasting menus and according to Zagat's their price points are not vastly different (outside Z's world, the difference is significantly wider, with Devi the less expensive). Restaurants may gain or suffer by these implicit comparisons, hard to shake.

    Devi does have airs - any restaurant that provides alternate tasting menus, and that advertises their chefs - Pastry Chef Surbhi Sahni, and Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur - asks us to take them seriously. Yet, Devi's professed intent to create authentic regional Indian home cooking places their goal betwixt haute cuisine and street food.

    Devi is not Tabla in looks or culinary style. Its decor, service, and cuisine is more humble than Danny Meyer's pleasure palace on Madison Square. This is not to suggest that Devi's food doesn't alternately satisfy and amaze, but it represents a small cuisine, not a grand one. Its ambitions are somewhere between Curry Row and Savile Row. The decor is an upgrade of the Indian-restaurant-in-a-box; gauzy, gaudy, gossamer, and rosy, not a candidate for Architectural Digest. And with a six course tasting menu, we were out the door in under a hundred minutes. On this snowy evening, staff weren't turning tables (the restaurant was largely empty), but their efficiency was nervy.

    In contrast to Tabla with its imagined place in an international culinary universe, Devi is about is creative and impressive as an ethnic restaurant can be in New York (and quite possibly anywhere, given the quality of ingredients available on this magic island).

    Selecting from the two tasting menus, our combined menu consisted of:

    Fried Cashew Ball (our amuse)

    Calcutta Jhaal Muri: Rice Puffs, Red Onions, Chickpeas, Green Chilies, Mustard Oil, and Lemon Juice

    Salmon Crab Cakes: Tomato Chutney Mayonnaise

    Sweet Potato Chaat: Sweet Potatoes, Toasted Cumin, Chaat Masala, Lime Juice

    Aloo Bonda: Potatoes, Mustard Seeds, Curry Leaves, Ginger, Hot Pepper, Tumeric, Urad Dal, Chickpea Flour

    Tandoori Quail: Spicy Fig Chutney

    Grilled Scallops: Roasted Red Pepper Chutney, Manchurian Cauliflower, Spicy Bitter-Orange Marmalade

    Mirchi Wali Machhi: Halibut, Roasted Pepper Chutney, Spiced Radish Rice

    Manchurian Cauliflower: Spicy Garlic Infused Tomato Sauce, Scallions

    Mirch Ka Salan Aur Puri: Preen Bell and Hot Peppers, Coconut, Peanuts, and Tamarind Curry with Puri Bread

    Tandoori Prawns: Eggplant Pickle, Crispy Okra

    Tandoor-Grilled Lamb Chops: Sweet and Sour Pear Chutney, Spiced Potatoes

    Jackfruit Biryaani: Basmati Rice, Potatoes and Whole Spices, Yogurt Sauce, Okra Chips

    Emperor's Morsel: Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding, Cardamon Cream, Candied Almonds

    Pistachio Kulfi: Indian Ice Cream, Candied Pistachio, Citrus Soup

    This is quite a spread, and at $60 for six courses, by no means unreasonable. Chef Saran and Mathur push the envelope of Indian cuisine, but never puncture it. Despite their creativity, they reject a fusion cuisine, but remain fully planted in the varied regional cuisines of India (the restaurant does not inform diners of the regional components of the cuisine, leaving the impression that the culinary choices are undifferentiated). With several tandoori dishes, a heavy use of peppers, and multiple chutneys, dishes tend to blur.

    The most memorable creation, given this array, is among the most modest. Chefs Saran and Mathur's crispy okra might better be labeled okra frites. The crispy fried strips of okra were magnificent. Okra is one of American's uniquely despised vegetables - abhorred for its repulsive slimy sludge - but if okra were served so cleverly it would challenge potato chips for America's heart. I also admired the tandoori prawns that shared a plate with the okra. This dish was the star of the evening.

    The pair of crab cakes were suffused with pleasure. They were cooked simply in a surprisingly subtle tomato chutney mayonnaise. They were sublime. The tandoor-grilled lamb chop with a vibrant sweet and sour pear chutney was exceptional as well, even if the spiced potato seemed standard issue. The flavors of the Grilled Scallops were complex, particularly with the bitter-orange marmalade. Of the two desserts, the Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding was superior with the addition of crunchy candied almonds on a canvas of saffron.

    Other dishes proved less successful. Those on the Vegetarian Tasting Menu did not match the skill shown with meat and fish. The cashew amuse was a spicy bite of not-much. Manchurian Cauliflower, slathered in ketchup was sickly sweet, and no match for a superb, ketchup-free version I enjoyed at Chinese Mirch. The Biryaani lacked much of a punch (also true of spiced radish rice). For some reason, Devi was not successful with rice dishes, seemingly a standard of Indian cuisine. While I happily sipped the citrus soup served with the Pistachio Kulfi, I found the ice cream less compelling than that available from dozens of unassuming stands in Jackson Heights.

    Devi rides high in comparison with Indian restaurants throughout the five boroughs. I was fully satisfied with what might well have been the best "ethnic cuisine" of my New York stay. This is no backhanded compliment, although these ambitious chefs might, perhaps, take it as one. I grieve over the absence of a glittering Michelin star for Tabla; the stars that Devi deserves are those twinklers on a clear winter night, admired while walking home from Union Square tickled and astounded by what Indian cuisine in the right hands can reveal.

    Devi
    8 East 18th Street
    Manhattan (Union Square)
    212-691-1300

    http://www.vealcheeks.blogspot.com
  • Post #2 - February 13th, 2006, 6:27 pm
    Post #2 - February 13th, 2006, 6:27 pm Post #2 - February 13th, 2006, 6:27 pm
    Suvir Saran was the chef on a recently airing episode of Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" series. While his food looked pretty good (he made the okra and prawn dish, among others), he really came off like a colossal jerk. It made me want to avoid him and his restaurants like the plague.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #3 - February 14th, 2006, 12:23 am
    Post #3 - February 14th, 2006, 12:23 am Post #3 - February 14th, 2006, 12:23 am
    I saw that episode too. Made me scratch Devi off my list, not because the owner is a pompous snit, but because the food looked, at best, like right down the middle, generic "Indian restaurant" cooking plus at least one zero on the bill. They made a huge deal about having a tandoor in the house. Wow. It looked like the Arun's conundrum, NYC Indian version. Fancy digs, unchallenging version of a food that, I suppose, is understood to be challenging from jump street and counterintuitive as expense account dining. Batali can serve offal, because it's Italian offal. The Indian guy has to stick with shrimp and lamb because Indian is weird enough as it is. Mind you, I did not eat there: these were just my impressions from the show.

    However, based on GAF's experience, I might give it a shot based on his good experience and the heavy use of seafood. I'm a still a little wary of the trend of high-end "ethnic" restaurants covering the requisite, tired fancy food bases such as foie gras, crab cakes, and short ribs. With very little thought these standards and others can be (and inevitably are) customized to match the restaurant. Mango, curry, and tamarind, respectively, could be applied in this case. I'd rather see some of the great breads and exotic vegetables that make the cuisine distinct.

    Speaking of bread, the owner did make a decent looking keema nan on the Bittman show. Bittman, on the other hand, made a very, very poor man's dosa masala using nearly unspiced mashed potatoes stuffed into the sorriest-looking burrito tortilla/lavash I have ever seen. Thank God for our wealth of tortillerias. Bittman did not acknowledge (or recognize? no, impossible) the actual Indian dish that corresponded to his college dorm creation.

    GAF, thanks for this and the other great reviews. They will come in handy for me soon.
  • Post #4 - February 14th, 2006, 6:55 am
    Post #4 - February 14th, 2006, 6:55 am Post #4 - February 14th, 2006, 6:55 am
    I saw the episode too, though I'll hold off on judgement of suvir saran based on the episode, I will say that he used to moderate the egullet india board and was always very very welcoming. Posted tons of recipes too, maybe more than are contained in his book. the couple that I've tried have been very good, a tomato chutney recipe has drawn raves on that board, I like it but IMO it needs a few additional dried red chiles, and the okra recipe from that show I liked quite a bit.

    Actually, the new york Indian place I want to try is one that my uncle told me about this weekend. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get the name as he was speaking very fast in hindi but something like "saharnath". Anyway its a new south Indian spot in Curry Hill. According to my uncle, who's eaten extensively in Indian restaurants in delhi, LA, NY and we've taken him to places around here, its the best Indian restaurant in the US that he's been to. His description of receiving light airy iddlis with four chutneys (coconut, green coconut, malagai podi, tomato) which tasted as if they had been made moments ago with fresh ingredients blew away anything I've had here.
  • Post #5 - February 14th, 2006, 9:10 am
    Post #5 - February 14th, 2006, 9:10 am Post #5 - February 14th, 2006, 9:10 am
    Zim, when you talk to your uncle again, post the name of the restaurant here (or elsewhere). It will be a useful resource.
  • Post #6 - February 14th, 2006, 9:41 am
    Post #6 - February 14th, 2006, 9:41 am Post #6 - February 14th, 2006, 9:41 am
    I'm willing to give Suvir Saran this credit: the times he seemed most pompous were when Bittman was making his dosa masala. And it really did look pathetic. If I saw Bittman making an indian version of a taco bell crunchwrap supreme, I might start scoffing, too.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #7 - February 14th, 2006, 12:38 pm
    Post #7 - February 14th, 2006, 12:38 pm Post #7 - February 14th, 2006, 12:38 pm
    Zim -

    Could it be Saravanaas? Haven't been there, but would interested in checking it out if this is the place your uncle referred to.

    http://menupages.com/restaurantdetails. ... =32&home=Y

    Perhaps it's time to plan a field trip to NYC?
    Hammer
  • Post #8 - February 14th, 2006, 12:46 pm
    Post #8 - February 14th, 2006, 12:46 pm Post #8 - February 14th, 2006, 12:46 pm
    And to be even more fair, I have noticed a fairly scripted pattern to the Bittman show: (1) Chef shows off his or her chops, using expensive ingredients and refined technique (in the Devi episode, the hand-kneaded, stuffed bread); (2) Bittman acts mildly impressed and pretends to know little or nothing about the food; (3) Bittman promises to make something just as good out of Wonderbread and Velveeta; (4) Chef acts very skeptical; (5) Chef comments that Bittman is using way too much butter in the pan; (6) Bittman explains that butter tastes good; (7) Chef pretends to be impressed with the Bittman dish, in this case gleam's Indian version of a crunchwrap, though Taco Bell's tortillas don't break when folded the way Bittman's heinously stale wrap did (even after warming on a hot griddle). He should have used a red sun-dried tomato tortilla instead. Yum.
  • Post #9 - February 15th, 2006, 1:18 pm
    Post #9 - February 15th, 2006, 1:18 pm Post #9 - February 15th, 2006, 1:18 pm
    Hammer wrote:Zim -

    Could it be Saravanaas? Haven't been there, but would interested in checking it out if this is the place your uncle referred to.

    http://menupages.com/restaurantdetails. ... =32&home=Y

    Perhaps it's time to plan a field trip to NYC?


    I think that's it.

    looking at the link, I found this from that page pretty interesting:

    The first time I ordered masala dosa, the server brought a plain dosa and suggested I start eating. He said the potato filling were being prepared - he'd bring it when it was ready (saw the same thing happen to another couple). People familiar with this cuisine will understand how absurd the suggestion is. It's like ordering spaghetti w/meatballs only to be told to eat spaghetti while the meatballs are being prepared. Not wanting to write this place off, I went back. This time our entrees arrived at a gap of 8-10 minutes which when you're hungry is a long time. The last time, it was a repeat performance of the first time. I left thinking the poor customer service and the dazed servers are too much of an annoyance to ever go back.

    I can't remember the last time I had a masala dosa where it tasted as if the filling was made fresh, at least not in the US
  • Post #10 - February 15th, 2006, 1:36 pm
    Post #10 - February 15th, 2006, 1:36 pm Post #10 - February 15th, 2006, 1:36 pm
    zim wrote:Actually, the new york Indian place I want to try is one that my uncle told me about this weekend. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get the name as he was speaking very fast in hindi but something like "saharnath". Anyway its a new south Indian spot in Curry Hill.

    Hammer wrote:Could it be Saravanaas? Haven't been there, but would interested in checking it out if this is the place your uncle referred to.


    This is fantastic for NY and regional Indian cooking as well. I just looked up Saravana Bhavan based on Zim and Hammer's comments. Indeed, Saravana Bhavan is now in NY. It is a franchise – but still I doubt it will be short of excellent and authentic. The original Saravana Bhavan (pronounced Suh-ruh-vunna - a Hindu god and common proper name; Bhav (as in above; approx.)+ un – means house) is a Madras (now Chennai) institution – their multiple branches are always full (– the high turnover means fresh fresh hot food – or maybe the other way around?).
    The food itself is best described as 'tiffin' and 'meals' - the latter not in the common English sense – these would be the 'thalis' or plates (see menu in link below). I should probably just say it is Classic South Indian, specifically Madras, vegetarian snack/meal food (best I can do for the word 'tiffin'*).

    A friend from Madras, who lived some time ago in the Bay Area, mentioned the frenzy when they opened a branch there (Sunnyvale) a few years ago - how their door was plastered, nearly covered with post-it notes from bay area S. Indian guys urging them to open earlier and on all seven days of the week. (I found also this 2002 review)

    I ate at the Al-Karama branch (Dubai) in December 2004, and if I couldn't see out the window, I would have sworn I was in Madras.

    The NYC branch and menu mentioned on their website - http://www.saravanabhavan.com/InterUsaNyrk.htm

    A small note of caution or rather advice, if I may: to appreciate better the food/cuisine, a guide familiar with the way to eat would be good. I would say this, not just for Non-Indian, but even for non-S. Indians**.
    I would definitely suggest washing your hands once you go there so you can eat with your fingers.

    Ah, if only a branch would open in Chicago…


    *One may eat 'tiffin' as a snack or a full meal at any time of the day.

    ** e.g., one should smoosh the rice first and then pour in the rasam or kolumbu so that the rice absorbs the flavor from the thin liquid. Note that rasam doesn't have to be eaten this way (i.e., with rice) – and can be drunk plain.


    ------------
    Back to Devi
    GAF wrote:Yet, Devi's professed intent to create authentic regional Indian home cooking places their goal betwixt haute cuisine and street food


    I'm not sure any of the listed dishes represent Indian home cooking. This would be quite distinct from Indian restaurant (or non-home) cooking and street food – which make up the list (although the chutneys may be another matter).
    Still it is a very diverse and interesting sampling menu – spread over a wide region in N. India (for the most part).

    GAF wrote:Calcutta Jhaal Muri: Rice Puffs, Red Onions, Chickpeas, Green Chilies, Mustard Oil, and Lemon Juice

    This is fascinating. I associate this not just with street food, but more specifically as food you can get on the commuter trains in and out of Calcutta (now Kolkata), sold by vendors who pop in and out of the carriages, with their wares and 'prep counter' hung around their neck and shoulders. I am a great believer in context – so I hope that the jhaal muri is served in a small paper bag fashioned out of old newspaper (NYT ok I suppose :) )

    GAF wrote:Manchurian Cauliflower: Spicy Garlic Infused Tomato Sauce, Scallions

    Frankly I'm not sure why this is included. I suppose Indian-Chinese is 'regional' Indian of sorts. Maybe my personal bias and prejudice against it kicks in. I am a believer in context as I mentioned – I think Indian-Chinese is best left in India.
  • Post #11 - February 15th, 2006, 1:47 pm
    Post #11 - February 15th, 2006, 1:47 pm Post #11 - February 15th, 2006, 1:47 pm
    sazerac,

    I've eaten at SB in madras/chennai (peters road branch), and it is exceptional stuff - especially the sweets and udupi stuff, If it is at all like that folks going to NY need to go. Chennai is IMO an underrated eating city.

    saz,
    thanks for attaching the link, I enjoyed looking through the photos (on the domestic page) of all the various branches.
  • Post #12 - February 17th, 2006, 12:33 pm
    Post #12 - February 17th, 2006, 12:33 pm Post #12 - February 17th, 2006, 12:33 pm
    I have had some of the best meals in my life at both Dévi and Amma, where Suvir and Hemant worked together before Dévi. I met Suvir at That Other Food Forum, and found him to be incredibly generous in every way. We became friends, and I cannot think of him as pompous in any circumstances. He's very witty, very gentle, except when he dishes, and I love that in a person. (The ability to be spiritual and human enough to gossip, that is.)

    It's baffling to me: perhaps he and Mr. Bittman had bad chemistry. It happens.

    I had lunch at Dévi when I visited NYC last spring, and posted some photos: http://tanabutler.com/devi/Devi.html.

    To each his own, certainly, but the food at Dévi is brilliant, IMHO. The lunch I had there last year was in my top five meals of 2005, and that included multiple chef's tastings at Manresa here in California, and a chef's tasting at Blue Hill Stone Barns.

    The food never fails to dazzle me. I had no idea Indian food could be that good. (Sadly, I live in a city with an atrocious Indian restaurant, where all the flavors are tired and musty.)
    the web geisha
  • Post #13 - February 17th, 2006, 1:57 pm
    Post #13 - February 17th, 2006, 1:57 pm Post #13 - February 17th, 2006, 1:57 pm
    I wrote:I am a great believer in context – so I hope that the jhaal muri is served in a small paper bag fashioned out of old newspaper (NYT ok I suppose :) )


    Jhaal muri nostalgia had me randomly googling and I came across with this blog – lulumanhattan that mentions (scroll down a bit) "Bengali food at Babu" where jhaal muri is indeed served out of a brown paper bag. Nice!
    I had no idea about the 'level' of specific regional cooking in the US. It is certainly encouraging that it is in good hands and that it isn't the British-Indian curry house cuisine that is being perpetuated.

    GAF, I'm curious as to what you thought of the jhaal muri (if you remember). Jhaal (= hot; as in spicy, not temperature) muri (pronounced moo+rdee ('rd' as ford) is puffed rice, rice crispies) is street food* so it is odd seeing it in a restaurant. I suppose it is alright within a multi-sampler tasting menu, but I wonder how it works given that you are eating so many other items. Jhaal muri specifically seems odd, not only because it is so simple (it is a chex-mix sort of item; it takes a few mins. to whip up) but also because it tends (like other street food) to be eaten by itself. I'm not sure how much I'd like the taste of a hot dog, if all I got was a small bite and it was part of a meal that included tastes of hush-puppies, clam chowder, a burger and then fancier items, say lamb chops, quail, etc.**

    So again, GAF, what did you think of the jhaal muri? If you don't remember, ah, that would be most unfortunate and I think then my point has some validity. I can still remember the taste of some Jhaal muris (and nothing else) from train rides when I was young.

    Nonetheless, Devi deserves credit for presenting real Indian food. I hope they do well.


    *the description of the one at Babu seems more authentic than the one with chickpeas at Devi, but it is street food that has many variations and can be customized. Personally, I prefer it without the coconut (or chickpeas) but with small cubes of boiled potato, but to each his own.

    **Maybe also I'm thinking way too much about this…
  • Post #14 - February 17th, 2006, 3:07 pm
    Post #14 - February 17th, 2006, 3:07 pm Post #14 - February 17th, 2006, 3:07 pm
    sazerac wrote:
    I wrote:I am a great believer in context – so I hope that the jhaal muri is served in a small paper bag fashioned out of old newspaper (NYT ok I suppose :) )


    GAF, I'm curious as to what you thought of the jhaal muri (if you remember). Jhaal (= hot; as in spicy, not temperature) muri (pronounced moo+rdee ('rd' as ford) is puffed rice, rice crispies) is street food* so it is odd seeing it in a restaurant. I suppose it is alright within a multi-sampler tasting menu, but I wonder how it works given that you are eating so many other items. Jhaal muri specifically seems odd, not only because it is so simple (it is a chex-mix sort of item; it takes a few mins. to whip up) but also because it tends (like other street food) to be eaten by itself. I'm not sure how much I'd like the taste of a hot dog, if all I got was a small bite and it was part of a meal that included tastes of hush-puppies, clam chowder, a burger and then fancier items, say lamb chops, quail, etc.**

    So again, GAF, what did you think of the jhaal muri? If you don't remember, ah, that would be most unfortunate and I think then my point has some validity. I can still remember the taste of some Jhaal muris (and nothing else) from train rides when I was young.

    [/size]


    I can't say that it was served in a paper bag, New York Times or otherwise. In fact it was served almost as a little round cake. This was part of my wife's menu, and she found it appealing in terms of flavor and level of heat. I enjoyed it as well, particularly as it was the first post-amuse dish. I recall being particularly impressed by the textures, but given that I didn't write about it specifically, it felt that it was a modest dish. But it was pretty in its colors and shape, and a nice beginning. I didn't ask about its background, but this makes sense. I can readily see that it was an uptown version of street food. I appreciate the background. Had I known I might have appreciated it more.

Contact

About

Team

Advertize

Close

Chat

Articles

Guide

Events

more