November 17, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Chaating About Tulsi

The captain of our fate cuts open the baked-on bread cover of our jackfruit biryani.
The captain of our fate cuts open the baked-on bread cover of our jackfruit biryani.

          Yes, for a moment, I can imagine I am joining a Maharajah or a Rajasthani gem dealer. I’d forgotten the instant illusion of luxurious privilege in the sheer white curtains surrounding many tables at Tulsi. Okay, I dream. Maybe it is polyester. Anyway, it wouldn’t be the late Maharaja of Jaipur, of course. (Hope you don’t mind my name-dropping a royal.) When friends and I were called to dinner at his palace, we were sent saris and soft slippers to wear and were seated cross-legged on the floor -- more than 100 strong -- around what seemed a mile of silken carpet.


The green is for Tulsi, meaning holy basil.  The polyester cocoons are a charming illusion.

          Still, as a friend observed last week on his first visit to Tulsi, the cocoon of sheer white fabric is “a charming illusion.” None of my companions tonight have been to Tulsi before. But some, like me, know Chef and Co-owner Hemant Mathur’s inspired vision of Indian tradition from his partnership with Suvir Saran at Devi. I am nursing a $14 juleptini. Kingfisher beer appeals to the Englishman beside me. Across from me, a Jain woman sips a mango lassi as waiters deliver the house amuse, a spicy belpuri chaat with mint and tamarind chutney. 


Just one portion may not be enough when everyone tastes the Manchurian cauliflower.

          When I have a vegetarian to feed, I often use that as a reason to revisit Tulsi, my favorite Indian restaurant. I can’t imagine a meal here without the sweet and fiery Manchurian cauliflower in its sticky garlic-tomato glaze or the crisp tendrils of okra with onion, cooked and raw -- musts for all Tulsi habitués.


It’s another must: the slivered fried okra -- developed by the chef with Suvir Saran at Devi.

          I can be content sharing a series of vegetarian dishes with my niece Dana. We order somewhat blindly, never knowing quite what we will get, although potato and green pea samosas are familiar. We try lotus seed with ricotta cheese and the summer squash dumplings. Chickpea cake with tart tomato chutney and tangy pineapple relish pleases us both. I am amazed when something as simple as the dal delivers layers of exotic flavor.


Three beautifully grilled scallops in a spicy sauce are my starter.

          Tonight I’m starting with a trio of scallops in red pepper sauce, grilled just to gel and caramelize. I debate whether to have the tandoori prawns I love but skipped on my last visit. I decide instead to have masala-stuffed eggplant in tomato-tamarind sauce surrounding a hill of rice. I’m shocked to see that the plump, dark bulbs are submerged in sauce. The taste is fine, but it doesn’t look like a dish Mathur would send out. The okra is burned. The replacement is fine.


These masala uttapam -- rice pancakes -- will make an Indian ex-pat feel at home.

          Sure enough, it’s his night out. But chef de cuisine Dhandu Ram has been there since opening day. He is charged with delivering what seems like an edited menu these days. I miss the gingery rabbit with green chiles, and the fabulous duck served with coconut and curry leaf sauce. (Entrées range from $17 to $34. There is also a three-course prix fixe based on a guest chef’s recipes that we decide to ignore.)


Caked with yogurt, rare and meat from the tandoori, these lamb chops are a signature of Chef Hemant.

          “Hemant’s Tandoori-Grilled Lamb Chops,” the listing boasts. Big and ugly, caked in yogurt, as Sam Sifton noted in his Times review, these are an astonishment of lamb flavor served with savory potatoes, South Indian-style, and pear chutney. So it may seem whiney of me to complain they don’t look like a work of art on the plate either.


A few seconds of overcooking does not spoil the splendid flavor of the tandoori lobster.

          My companions are not so critical. They enthusiastically trade tastes of the lamb, the tandoori lobster masala (just a tad too cooked) and the saffron-scented chicken korma with cashews, onions, mint and garam masala. Vegetable sides are lined up on the table by the tall, elegant captain who has taken charge of our fate.


Mustard parval chole -- a sophisticated turnout of chickpeas -- is my favorite dish tonight.

          My favorite mustard parval chole -- squash with black chickpeas and mustard oil -- is a riot of textures, and a tangle of flavors. Seeing as it’s at my end of the table, I take more than my share.  I’d forgotten to ask for yogurt raita. I love to spread it on the hot breads. But he’s brought that too. Now he cuts open the bread sealing the jackfruit biryani, peeling it back in petals so we can taste it, as the first-rate breads I ordered -- mint paratha and the rosemary and garlic naan -- are almost gone.


I can’t recall a bread at Tulsi I didn’t like. I usually slather it with yogurt raita.

   I regret I cannot testify that the service is never rude here. I have almost always been recognized as a Devi devotee, a Mathur fan and a restaurant critic. (Though I do recall waving my arm impatiently when hidden away in a corner one evening.)  


Sorry, I should have used a flash to get this photo of Hemant inside our dining cocoon.

          The hosts have summoned Mathur. He appears magically in his whites with the red, white and blue collar that came with his Michelin star at Devi, doubled by his new Michelin star here. His wife Surbhi Sahni is with him too, also in her uniform. She created the delicate mango cheesecake and the sensuous falooda noodles with tapioca at Devi before leaving when their daughter was born. 


Tulsi is close enough to the United Nations to draw an international crowd.

          Sahni, as pastry muse here, continues to fuse East and West, using Indian ingredients with American and French pastry techniques. Tonight we’ve not even seen a dessert menu, but teaspoons and forks appear, and soon the table is covered with desserts. Mango panna cotta with passion fruit sauce and fresh mango. Pistachio kulfi with candied pistachios. Black-pepper pineapple cake with mascarpone cream.

          Inside the cheesecake on its almond rose crust, a classic gulab jamun is hidden. And there are cherries, macerated with spices in red wine, as well as almond milk in the chocolate ice cream sandwiched between chocolate cookies.

          Exiting our polyester tent, as I walk toward the door, I notice many South East Asian faces in the weekend gathering. We are a New York crowd, I’d say, drawn by the clarion flavors and evolved sophistication of Tulsi.

211 East 46th Street between Second and Third Avenues. 212 888 0820. Lunch Monday to Saturday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Sunday 5 to 10 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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