Monday, June 27, 2005

Restaurant 43: Devi

Clockwise from top left: The interior of Devi on 18th St.; Mung Bean Chaat; Mango Cheesecake; Tandoor Lamb Chops.

LOCATION: 8 East 18th St.
DATE: June 24, 2005
FOOD: Restaurant week 3-courses: Mung Bean Chaat (sprouted mung bean salad, roasted papadam); Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops (pear chutney, curry leaf potatoes); Mango Cheesecake (Rosewater almond cookie, rose sauce and candied mango peel and fresh mango slaw, mango crisp); Naan; Basmati Rice.
BEVERAGE: French 18 (Bourbon and Pineapple Cocktail); Bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
PRICE: Courtesy of my Dad

Devi is about home-cooking – if your home were in India. Usually, gourmet food is about flaunting convention. Chefs use their food as an edible display of not only their art, but their ambition as well. Up-scale ethnic restaurants are seldom able to succeed without incorporating outside influences, pushing food that is more about fusion than tradition. But at Devi, co-executive chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur engage in what their website terms the “reconstruction” of authentic Indian flavors. At a time when Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller attempt to deconstruct every culinary commonplace out there, from snickers to foie gras, Saran and Mathur’s motivations are swimming against the current. However, Devi is an unquestionable success and an indication that sticking to tradition doesn’t always have to mean succumbing to the mundane.

Saran and Mathur evidently understand the link between the food one eats and the atmosphere in which one eats it. Devi is decorated in bold, bright colors which are mellowed by toned down lighting. The décor evokes both a contemporary India and the comfortable plush seating of an intimate home. Upon first entering the restaurant, an aromatic whirlwind uplifts the senses in an air as evocative as one of Arundhati Roy’s metaphors in The God of Small Things.

The cocktail list offers selections varying from the capricious to the chic. The French 18 combined the sweetness of pineapple, an Indian staple, with brash bourbon and its western imperial foundations. Devi incorporates all of India and the country’s history into its menu.

The intricate network of spice in our appetizers crept upon us with the slow heat of a Bombay summer. In my mung bean chat, the salad’s traditional fried spinach leaves were provocatively replaced with the wafer-like crunch of papadum. The beans themselves tasted like sweetened barley and were seasoned with chaat masala, a mixture that Saran told Mark Bittman of the New York Times, is commonly found in most Indian grocery stores. Even better was Danny’s Manchurian cauliflower, in which the vegetable was pan-fried and then covered by a richly garlic and exotic tomato sauce illustrating the bond between Chinese and Indian cuisine in the same way as Tangra Masala.

The Tandoor grilled lamb chops are Devi’s specialty and for obvious reason. The lamb is tender like a French style roast, but hidden in the grill lines are a blissful hint of curry. However, the lamb explodes once the accompanying pear chutney is added onto the meat, all the spicy-sweetness of more traditional Indian chutneys exemplified in the medley.

What is especially amazing about Devi is how “clean” the food is. At lower tier Indian restaurants, dishes are often submerged in a dense miasma of partially congealed oils. But Devi serves Indian that is as light as Japanese, as crisp as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is imaginative. This was perhaps nowhere more finely illustrated than in the chicken pista, my father’s entrée. Chunks of chicken are immersed in an emerald sauce bursting with the sultry flavors of cilantro, pistachio and green chilis. The color is playful, highlighting the green of its composite ingredients. But what is tremendous is the taste. Waves of spiciness and cool bombard the tongue with the directed wildness of Fantasia. The dish achieves a level of sophisticated contrast that amazes.

Dessert was another showcase of riches. As Cheesecake Factory’s continue there spread to every mall in American, one would think the death of the cheesecake is right around the corner. Not if Devi’s pastry chef, Surbhi Sahni (also Mathur’s wife) has anything to do with it. Her mango cheesecake was as weightless as refined panna cotta with an appearance reminiscent of flan. The mango was present, but not overused as the cake was more creamy the fruity. More outstanding was the mango slaw paired with the cheesecake, which drew out the semi-latent intensity of the cheesecake like a psychoanalyst calls forth neurosis. Jaw-dropping occurred from all those at the table.

In an essay in his collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” novelist David Foster Wallace analyzes the world of contemporary literature, especially the architects of postmodernism. He concludes that while the works of DeLillo and Gaddis, Pynchon and Gass, provide penetrating insights into a culture of consumerism that can only lead to a dead end, removing our connection to ourselves and one another, literature will also reach a state of oblivion if it loses all touch with the humanistic and more realistic driven style of the past. Taken to an extreme, the esoteric and obscure devolves into chaos. Wallace’s argument finds an echo at Devi. At this restaurant, tradition is not something to be ridiculed and overturned, but rather a core to revel in and learn from. The food might not be simple, but the concept is. Devi is that rare experience where a forwarding looking rendition on the past is used to create a present which is purely sublime.

RATING: 8.8/10


tara said...

A few things:
• chaat masala is a tasty condiment for apple slices or segments of grapefruit. An acquired taste, true, but the salty spice is great against sweet fruit.
• The pear chutney sounds divine.
• I sort of love you for mentioning The God of Small Things.

Rockefeller said...

* Interesting. I know the word chaat refers to any type of Indian snack.
* It was.
* I've never read an author who has a better ability for pinpoint metaphors than Roy. I just wish she'd write another novel.

Anonymous said...

Tara, what are you wearing?