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Made in Manhattan

Indira Kannan 

As the market for Indian cuisine expands in the US, restaurateurs face a dilemma: To stay traditional or try fusion?

What the bleep is curry?” asks an exasperated Maneet Chauhan. The India-born executive chef of Vermilion, a chic restaurant offering Indian-Latin American fusion cuisine in New York and Chicago, is referring to the frequent requests she still gets for “the recipe for curry”.

That, on a platter, sums up the challenge for Indian restaurants in the US — marketing a cuisine that is still struggling to define itself and find its place in a half-trillion dollar restaurant industry.

On December 30, an era will end for Indian cuisine in the US, as Tabla, a pioneering venture by Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer, and a beloved fixture on the New York dining scene for over a decade, closes its doors. (see box below) But the last quarter of the year is also proving eventful in a positive way — new restaurants are opening, offering choices ranging from the fairly to the barely Indian.

The Indian table in the US was first set by the so-called curry houses that offered one-gravy-fits-all fare to south Asian cab drivers and other lower income workers who were part of the wave of immigrants who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. Although many of these eateries were not even run by Indians, they called themselves ‘Indian restaurants’ and the label stuck. “People still have this notion that Indian food is cheap, oily and spicy,” says Jehangir Mehta, one of New York’s best-known pastry chefs who recently opened his second restaurant, a hip eatery called Mehtaphor, in downtown Manhattan.

Nor was Indian food able to use the ‘cheap food’ label to enter the mainstream as it did in the UK or even like some other cuisines in the US.

Rohini Dey, owner of the Vermilion restaurants in New York and Chicago, recalls meeting casino developers in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. Trying to sell the idea of an Indian restaurant at the casinos to cater to Sin City’s convention and tourist crowd, the Chicago-based Dey was told: “Give us a list of 20 cuisines and we will not touch Indian with a barge pole.”

Tabla faced similar resistance. The restaurant, as Meyer points out, has been voted among New York’s Top 50 restaurants in the Zagat Survey, the American foodies’ bible, every year since it opened. While diners loved the food once they tried it, Meyer says, “What we would hear is, ‘I love Tabla, but the guy I’m taking out for a business lunch says he doesn’t like Indian food, and I don’t want to lose the deal.’”

Restaurant reviewers look at several aspects, including presentation, when making their recommendations, and Indian food often lost out on that front. As Mehta points out, “French food works well with individual plating and a lot of hearty Italian or Indian dishes are so loose in terms of consistency that they don’t plate so well.”

Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey, argues it’s just a matter of time. “Indian cuisine is not as prevalent as French, Japanese or Italian because it is relatively new to the American dining scene,” he says.

Taste of India
Indian chefs and restaurant owners readily admit that Indian cuisine really entered the ranks of fine dining in the US with the debut of Tabla 12 years ago.

While Tabla’s Mumbai-born executive chef Floyd Cardoz could entice New Yorkers with creative dishes like Banana Leaf Roasted Baby Goat with cardamom, chillies and yogurt, and the Tabla Crab Cake, other factors contributed to the expansion of the market.

Americans who travelled to India on business often came back with a taste for Indian food. And the technology boom of the 1990s brought younger, educated Indians to the US, who were willing to spend on eating out.

“Now young Indians in the US go out more, and bring their American colleagues with them, creating more customers for us,” says Hemant Mathur, who along with Suvir Saran was until recently co-owner and co-executive chef of Devi, the first Indian restaurant in the US to receive a star in the famous Michelin guide’s New York edition.

Second generation Indian Americans wanted the food they had grown up with, but with the standards they were used to in their native country.

Devi recently booked an order from a young Indian American for a Diwali party. The client chose from a traditional menu, but added the rider: “I want my food to look good.”

Mathur recalls that when he came to the US 16 years ago, Americans knew only two or three dishes. “Now they want more than Rogan Josh and Chicken Tikka Masala,” he says.

Marie-Benedicte Chevet of the Michelin group confirms that assessment: “It used to be all northern-style cooking; now you find many regional Indian restaurants.”

Michelin guides in the US have featured restaurants ranging from Gujarati restaurant Vatan to Saravana, a south Indian vegetarian eatery. Manhattan’s ‘Curry Hill’ is home to a wide variety of Indian fare, from the popular Chinese Mirch doing ‘Indian Chinese’ and Yogi’s Kitchen offering ‘ayurvedic food’ to the Punjabi ‘truck stop’ Dhaba.

Traditional vs fusion
As the market expands for Indian cuisine, restaurateurs are faced with a dilemma: traditional or fusion? Mathur is betting on traditional. The chef is leaving Devi to open a new restaurant, Tulsi, in Manhattan this month. He plans to offer a totally Indian menu, but with innovative dishes featuring fresh and different meats, and plenty of vegetarian options.

Cardoz agrees there is a market for authentic Indian food. At Tabla, he points out, even with fusion dishes like Tandoori Flank Steak Naan Sandwich on the menu, the Goan fish curry he made with his grandmother’s recipe sold out every night.

At Vermilion, Dey and Chauhan opted for a mix, arguing that it helped draw in more customers, who could choose from Indian-Latin American fusion fare like Tandoori Skirt Steak and Shrimp Seafood Paella with poha, or the ‘hard core Indian’ dishes like Patrani Machali and Lobster Portuguese, a Goan dish.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mehta offers just a hint of India at his restaurants, Graffiti and Mehtaphor. The Mumbai native uses Indian and Persian spices to make creative dishes like Garlic Cumin Crab Pizza and the kabab-inspired Graffiti Burger.

Some Indian restaurants also incorporate local elements. Michelin’s Chevet points out that “in India you would not find breads with rosemary or cheddar cheese but at Brick Lane Curry House in the East Village you’ll find rosemary naan or cheddar cheese paratha and the quality isn’t lesser for it.”

Recipe for success

Can a restaurant survive, especially in New York, America’s culinary capital, with over 20,000 restaurants and an estimated 60 per cent failure rate?

Meyer and Cardoz admit their 263-seat Tabla was too ambitious for an Indian restaurant. For Meyer, who also owns restaurants like Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, considered pathbreaking destinations in American dining, Tabla is the only non-Western restaurant in his stable, and the only one he’s had to close so far.

In contrast, Devi is a 70-seater and Mathur is going with the same size for Tulsi. He believes its smaller, boutique size has helped Devi weather the recession better.

Meanwhile, at New York’s Vermilion, Dey has aimed big, scooping up a 12,000 sq ft space in the heart of Manhattan because she got a great deal on everything including the rent, due to the recession. With an eclectic group of investors for her restaurants, including publisher Sonny Mehta, former McKinsey MD Rajat Gupta, Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia, Cisco executive Padmasree Warrier and author Salman Rushdie, Dey believes her own background in business, both at McKinsey and the World Bank, is critical to managing Vermilion. As her chef Chauhan points out, “The highest failure rate of restaurants is for those opened only by chefs because they are driven by passion. You need a very astute sense of finance to make this work.”

Star chefs
After several years of resistance and obscurity, Indian cuisine is poised for a quantum leap in the US. Several chefs are on the verge of stardom. Chauhan is on this season of Iron Chef, following Mehta’s turn on the show last year. Padma Lakshmi is already famous as the host of Top Chef. Alpana Singh is a star sommelier in Chicago.

Earlier this year, Mumbai-born Aarti Sequeira landed her own show on the popular Food Network after winning the series, The Next Food Network Star. Cardoz has a signature line of Tabla dishes developed for Fresh Direct, a popular online grocery store.

Several cuisines that are popular now have evolved after reaching the US, explains Akiko Katayama, food writer and frequent Iron Chef judge. She cites the examples of Mario Batali reinterpreting classic Italian with American ideas and ingredients at Babbo, and Nobu changing the perception of Japanese cuisine. “I think Indian cuisine is now in transition. Floyd Cardoz at Tabla and Suvir Saran at Devi took the first steps, and Jehangir seems to be pushing it forward with a more American approach,” says Katayama.

Adds Tim Zagat, “I think that the appeal of Indian cuisine rests in its refined, subtle flavour combinations. The more chefs continue to experiment and use their creativity with different fusions of cuisines, I’m sure we will see the spices and flavours of Indian cuisine finding their way into other parts of American dining.”

TABLA: CURTAIN CALL

HARRISON FORD, Matt Damon and Madonna were wowed by the food. Baseball superstar Derek Jeter wanted to meet the chef. Actor Paul Giamatti was a regular. So is a New Yorker who recently made her 400th visit to the restaurant.

All of that acclaim and loyalty, however, won’t be enough to keep Tabla open as the New Year dawns. After a 12-year run during which executive chef Floyd Cardoz introduced a generation of Americans to Indian flavours, the iconic New York restaurant will close at the end of the year, a victim of the ongoing recession. Owner Danny Meyer is nostalgic recounting the origin of Tabla: Michael Romano, the star chef at his other famous restaurant Union Square Café, had an Indian girlfriend and so was dabbling in all things Indian.

As the two contemplated opening a modern Indian restaurant, they were introduced to a sous-chef from L’Espinasse, whose cooking “blew them away”. Cardoz was on board, and one of the first experiments in Indian fine dining in the US was born. Meyer picked the name after taking his then 4-year-old daughter to a jazz clarinet concert featuring an American playing tabla, pairing “an American art form with an Indian rhythm”.

But Meyer is a businessman, and he is also brutally honest when assessing Tabla’s prospects, given its sprawling 263-cover capacity spread over two floors in a prime location: “The national food of New York is Italian and steak. Tabla was the only one of our restaurants where we could not feel confident that we would sell out every table for two seatings every single night.”

Meyer and Cardoz are proud that Tabla is closing with a bang — it has special offerings and events until December 30 and ironically, is selling out every night since the closing was announced. While he will soon start work on a new, non-Indian project for Meyer, Cardoz still hopes to bring Tabla back some day, but next time, he muses, it will be a smaller place.

First Published: Sat, November 20 2010. 00:20 IST
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