May 23, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Found in Translation: Indian Accent

 Indian Accent’s potato sphere chaat with white pea mash is as delicious as it looks.
Indian Accent’s potato sphere chaat with white pea mash is as delicious as it looks.

          Waiting for my pals to arrive at Indian Accent, I eavesdrop as the waiter tells the couple next to me that the pastrami kulcha would not be found in their New Delhi restaurant, but is a dish developed as a tribute to New York. The couple have been puzzling over the menu as if it were written in Urdu. I found it difficult too.The waiter gently makes suggestions.

Did they get the idea for pastrami kulcha from Red Farm’s eggroll or is pastrami in the zeitgeist?

          Now our foursome is assembled. No one murmurs a sigh of complaint, but all three of my companions -- summoned to share my third dinner here -- are apparently wary.  “Why does it have to be Indian?” My pal Bob confesses that he brooded right up to arriving and ordering a spritz. “We’re not fans of Indian food either,” my friend Marcia admits.

I moved our table away from the bar to escape the constant rat-a-tat of the cocktail shaker.

          My friends sip their cocktails and urge me to order. We agree to have the three-course dinner for $75. As I choose 10 dishes (leaving room for two desserts), I can’t help mentioning to our waiter that my last meal, more than a month earlier, had seemed to drag on for hours. “We can speed things up,” he offers.

It’s just a small amuse -- coconut-pumpkin soup and blue cheese naan -- but, both are delectable. 

          The seduction starts with small blue cheese naan rounds on a saucer alongside coconut and pumpkin shorba -- a complex soup in a small earthenware teacup. And then quickly, just after the Potato Sphere Chaat with its white pea mash and yogurt dribbles, both naysayers are making positive murmurings. Even Myron, Marcia’s husband who trends toward discreet silence, seems pleased.

Among the first courses, sweet potato with kohlrabi and crispy okra on radish thins.

          The dishes are often beautiful as they arrive on ceramic plates, and the spicing is familiar, but most everything we taste is unexpected and delicious. They seem pleased with the street food starters, small grains and crispy things with spring peas tossed in tomato -- a gift from the kitchen -- and sweet potato shakarkandi with kohlrabi and crispy okra -- each divided in half, so all four of us can taste both, then trade back and forth.

Flavorful roasted lamb chunks are meant to roll in delicate little roti pancakes and dab with chutney.

          “I was expecting samosas,” Marcia confesses, marveling at the elaborate presentation of sweetly savory roast lamb, a $38 extra for the table to share, in a wooden picnic carrier. The meaty chunks are meant to roll with celery sticks in small paper-thin roomali roti pancakes, then dab with a choice of chutneys and sauces. It’s a drill we all mastered with Peking duck.

Usually I don’t like falling-off-the-bone ribs, but these sweet pickle beauties with sundried mango are special.

          My favorite sweet pickle pork ribs, fatty and fragrant with sundried mango and onion seeds, are bigger, than I recall. There are two in a portion. I can eat half and pass them on. The duck Chettinad on an idli cushion -- made from fermented black lentils -- is a little tower of pearl onion chutney with a topknot of foie gras.  

Chettinad-style duck is a tower with a base of idly, pearl onion chutney and a roof of foie gras.

          Bob’s uninhibited gestures of amazement at these small flavor bombs nearly topples a busser as my vegetarian picks from the “seconds” section, paneer “cheese” with crispy quinoa and ramps and pulled jackfruit phulka on a puffed up flatbread, join the rotation.

The intermezzo of lemony popsicle with Indian spices serves as a palate cleanser.

          “In India they drink lemon water for the heat,” our waiter notes bringing four small lemony popsicles on a stick as an intermezzo.

Chef Manish Mehrotra tells us he has been sent to launch Indian Accent and will stay till December.

          In the pause between courses, chef Manish Mehotra also steps in and Bob shows him a menu from New Delhi on his cell phone, emailed by a friend who called it the best meal she’d ever eaten. The chef is humble, clearly primed by similar natterings from other table. 

The dosa came to Amagansett years ago, but this one with mushrooms and water chestnuts is very elegant.

          Marcia shows off the gossamer pastry cone of her mushroom and water chestnut-filled dosa so I can photograph it intact. My tamarind sea bass topped with salmon roe is a much larger portion than I remember, tender, not overcooked, sitting in a Kerala-inspired coconut porridge with stir-fried spinach.

I’ve tasted this tamarind sea bass on herb barley with salmon roe three times and it’s unfailingly fine.

          I pass the fish along to focus on spicy pork belly vindaloo, served with thick-grained, red-streaked Goan rice. The dal gosht lamb, molded into a tuffet with lentils and cumin sunchokes, flies a small round flag with cilantro pressed into it.

I’m not a big pork belly fan but this fatty cut in spicy vindaloo with Goan red rice is a worthwhile diversion.

          Our small four-top is crammed with extras. The black dal is a masterful layering of flavors. I have to beg my friends to taste it since it looks like nothing more than the unusual thick soup you might see in any Indian restaurant around town. It’s so complex, I need to sneak in a double dip and taste it again. I’m also the only one indulging in the wasabi-cucumber raita. I love all raitas. I spread that yogurt on a paratha or any other bread nearby, on anything, even my fingers if necessary. 

Nothing wrong with lamb three times in a night for me, especially here with lentils and cumin-stoked sunchokes. 

          My companions seem to have grown a bit dazed by the excess. I have to point out the pastrami kulcha. I believe they pause to consider the concept, but I seem to be the only taster, same with the bacon kulcha. At that point even I feel arrested by over-indulgence.

Saffron milk custard with rose petal jiggery (palm sugar) brittle, almonds and gold leaf.

          Still, we agree to have one dessert. It won’t be the gorgeous saffron milk makhan malai with almonds and apricots I’ve had twice before. A saffron allergy at our table forbids it. The vote is for “mango” -- creamy mango pudding with cooked mango and mango leather. Even more delicious is the astonishingly lush and ripe raw mango delivered on its own saucer. It’s nothing like any mango I’ve ever brought home from my now bankrupt Fairway.

It just says “Mango” on the menu but its mango three ways and a thrillingly ripe raw mango on the side.

          There was no restaurant quite like Indian Accent, no restaurant quite this ambitious and original, the last time I visited New Delhi. When I read local gossip alerts that the chef who had surprised Delhi by inventing dishes that didn’t exist was being dispatched to the back door of the Parker Meridien to do a Manhattan offshoot, I didn’t want to wait. Even before opening, the place was already claiming to be fully-booked. I called an Indian friend from Delhi to get me a table.

I assume we owe India’s affection for treacle tart to the British. Good with vanilla bean ice cream.

          That means I was never anonymous here from the moment I crashed a friends-and-family preview in March. Even on that first early evening, with dishes still in development, I find the kitchen impressive. I’m bemused that owner Rohit Khattar has recruited a diverse staff of local servers, none of them seemingly Indian. The crew seems to have memorized everything one can know about each dish. Just ask.

After enough and then more than enough, the waiter brings nuts with jaggery. Or did my dentist send them?

          The original idea of an a la carte menu has been abandoned. Now the options are the $75 three-course dinner, four courses for $90, the chef’s tasting at $110, with wine matchings $70, reserve wines $150, and tea service for $15. Be aware that dinner will be $100 or more per person.

Another way to start dinner: a tasting of papads with wild boar pickle, prawn balchao and house chutneys.

          So far, my friends have been experimenting with $16 exotic cocktails. I find that each one has something in it I’d rather not taste. So I order a Negroni or a glass of Spanish red. The rat-a-tat of the shaker is a noisy chorus in the front room. At our backroom table, we have an oratorio of discovering how thrilling an Indian Accent can be.

Negroni on the rocks with a little extra Campari, I said. That’s what the bar sent, plus a shot of Campari.

123 West 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212 842 8070. Dinner only Monday to Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Bar is open till midnight.


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