August 29, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Paowalla: Good in Bread (CLOSED)

 Don’t overdo it on breads and small plates if the table plans to share the $58 black-spiced chicken.
Don’t overdo it on breads and small plates if the table plans to share the $58 black-spiced chicken.

          I love bread.  So does Floyd Cardoz.  And bread loves the Goan-born chef. My friends and I were so excited by everything we tasted that first evening at his new Paowalla that we insisted he give us a table three days later whether he had one or not.

Longtime Tabla’s Bread Bar fans are thrilled to find chef-owner Floyd Cardoz playing in his element.

          I was a big fan of Cardoz’s creative whimsy at Tabla. That great soaring space with its stunning vegetable mosaics by Robert Kushner…wasn’t it Danny Meyer’s most vibrant creation? It’s Eleven Madison Park now.

Boodies Sunday basmati pilaf, zucchini chili fry and these croutons come with black-spiced chicken.

          As a showroom discount and sale junkie, I was especially drawn to Tabla’s Bread Bar. Those days are gone now. The chef’s $59 Black Spiced Chicken with kokum jus, chickpea Sunday basmati pilaf, zucchini chili fry, and crunchy croutons will be more than four of you can make a dent in. That is, if you’ve been piling up the breads, dribbling chutneys and emptying small plates as we have.

A cheddar-filled kulcha, whole wheat naan and six chutneys launch our first early dinner.

          Still, the sensational kulcha oozing cheddar cheese is just $10. Sourdough naan and the whole-wheat roti are perfect to dab with chutney. “Bring the kulcha with our tamarind margaritas,” I instruct our waitress. And she does, along with the raita.

          For me, a yogurt raita is essential to the India fantasy. This one is a gem, filled with chickpea flour dumplings, whole garbanzos, cucumber, and cilantro, jeweled beyond the usual.

Roasted green chickpea chaat with sweet onions, chilies, tamarind and chickpea noodle crisps.

          My friends and I agree on a $7 sampler of three chutneys. But the chef adds another trio so we get to taste them all: lemon, mint cilantro, the mango pickle, tamarind, the torrid chili, and the complex layerings of tomato kalonji –- a sauce dating from Tabla glory days. It’s a recipe he shared in his cookbook One Spice, Two Spice. (I normally spell it chile for pepper and chili for chili con carne but I’m following Paowalla menu spellings here.)   

Could this Bombay three-chili chicken be a bit more torrid?

          Timid eaters may find the spicy chili or even the chunky mango forbidding, but nothing is too sizzling for addicts of a serious scorch, like me. I hope the kitchen won’t surrender to the wary multitudes. I think the Bombay three chili chicken could be a level or two higher on the Scoville pepper scale. Work it out with your waiter: Hot, Very Hot or the Ultimate.

One of our favorites: scrambled eggs with caramelized onions, ginger and cilantro to pile on toast.

          No need to start obsessing about fire. There are many far-from-challenging options. My favorites among the small plates -- scrambled eggs with caramelized onions and ginger to spread on toasted bread, and outsize calamari brilliantly plumped up with sour plum, onions, red chili, and mustard seeds -- are easy. Though you might want to be sure the lush goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms have cooled a bit before you take a bite that burns your mouth.

Don’t miss the calamari chili fry stuffed with kokum, sour plum, onions, chile and mustard seeds.

          Legend has it that only one in seven shishitos will be really hot. Too bad it’s my friend Art who gets the slightly lethal chickpea-battered shishito from the small plate of pepper pakora with peanuts that the chef delivers himself. Luckily Art has Kingfisher beer near to cool his jets.

Chickpea-battered shishito pepper pakoras may hide a surprise bolt of heat for someone. 

          Cardoz brings us two Goan pao from the bread menu, too -- they look like Parker House rolls. Paowalla means bread seller, he explains. We ask the Goan-born chef if Floyd is a Portuguese name.  “Not at all,” he says with a grin. It turns out his father was a boxing fan. He’s named after Floyd Patterson.

The glass and black steel framed windows in the back room definitely magnify the din.

          The strikingly handsome young man at the welcome desk is the chef’s son. It’s he who leads me down the narrow open path into a small, black-steel-and-glass window-wrapped room at the rear, past the bar, and a dining counter – both packed closely with diners, 72 seats in all. It is fiercely noisy. The margaritas help, and though ears are still bombarded, we seem to settle into a cocoon of discovery and indulgence.

Vindaloo pork ribs are stewed with chilies, garlic and vinegar till the meat nearly falls off the bone. 

          I’m stunned to see my friend Lyn, who normally eats salmon every evening, finishing off a very large vindaloo-scented spare rib. I watch her search for one last chunk of meat in the sauce, a garlicky, vinegar toned gravy.

Give the goat cheese-filled squash blossom pakoras a chance to cool a bit before you fill your mouth.

          I’ve decided I want to write this first impression, but I know I haven’t tasted enough dishes. Reluctantly, Cardoz agrees to save me a table in the small, quieter room the next Saturday night. He’s wary. Maybe it’s too soon. That is always a danger.

The whole wheat roti is brushed with ghee, waiting for you to pile on a dollop of chutney or pickle.

          Not to be denied, I’m back in another foursome, wondering how not to seem too pushy as I favor dishes I’ve not tasted yet. I recite the choices I propose. “You order for us,” my companions offer. I give us the naan with crispy bits of bacon and a trio of chutneys to launch. Then everything comes too fast, rather than in manageable waves.  (Maybe the kitchen has found its pace.)

A small plate of baked crab with coconut and Goan spices.

          The tabletop is crowded, and I’m trying not to show how annoyed I am. The heirloom tomatoes, even with its kadai masala and ginger, could be on any summer menu around town, I decide. The baked crab with coconut, a Goan dish, is more in the chef’s chosen rap.

Check out the vegetables too, like this baked eggplant with tamarind, jaggery and peanuts.

          I’ve ordered vegetable sides, too. Eggplant baked with sesame, tamarind, and jaggery, then served with peanuts. Chunks of summer squash Bhartha in yoghurt-cumin cream. And not to be missed: corn on the cob spiced with chili powder, cayenne and pomegranate -- definitely worth the sticky mess to pick up and eat.

The spiced corn with lime, chili powder, cayenne and pomegranate is another don’t-miss

          The rice is black, the squid ink shiny, with crab, squid and baby shrimp in wickedly delicious savian biryani.  Green mango in spikes on top magnifies the decadence of the squid ink. “What about pork ribs Vindaloo?” one of my friends asks, sneaking a peek at the menu. How can I deny her? I order them, too. For each of us: one large rib, meat sliding off the bone, swimming in its tangy sauce.

Whatever squash is in the green market works for this summer squash bhartha with yogurt.

          That last rib rave seems to quench everyone’s appetite for the black spiced chicken with all its trappings. I manage one very juicy leg. I feel better about leaving behind so much of a $59 bird when one of my friends says she’ll take the leftovers home.

Grilled pineapple in vanilla bean black pepper syrup is the dessert all of us singled out.

          Nobody really wants dessert, but if I insist, grilled pineapple in a black pepper and vanilla bean syrup is their choice. The slices are thickly cut. I can’t believe I’m eating the whole thing.

My friends are astonished (impressed?) when I eat my Tandoor-fired shrimp, skin and all.

          I’ve always felt Cardoz got lost after Tabla closed. He seemed miscast at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill in Battery Park City. When he emerged from the kitchen to say hello at White Street, I thought he had a faraway look in his eyes. I’d not been to Mumbai since he opened The Bombay Canteen.

Chef-owner Cardoz comes by to welcome old friends and drop off gifts from the kitchen.

          When I heard he was planning Paowalla, I thought yes. Pow. A small Goan bistro with an emphasis on bread for all who still mourn Tabla. Should he become bored or distracted, there is chef de cuisine Zia Sheikh, eight years at Tabla, and with him at North End, tending the inherited pizza oven and two new tandoors in what used to be Mezzogiorno.

          It’s tasting great out of the gate. Only one flaw: that hellish racket. When we spoke earlier this week he assured me sound-proofing was arriving any day.

195 Spring Street, southeast corner Sullivan Street. 212 235 1097 Dinner Monday 5:30 to 10 pm. Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday for now. Sundays soon. Lunch and brunch noon to 2:30 pm in October.


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