It is very easy to get stuck in a rut of favorite places, eating nineteen out of twenty meals at one of five restaurants. It just happens, especially if you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that has Cru, Babbo, Otto, Blue Hill, Gotham, Lupa, and Strip House all within four or five blocks. So when Urchin, Bear and I decided to actually plan a dinner a little ahead of time, we decided to try someplace different. Here is what a rut I sink into: when I was asked, I suggested we go the whole two blocks over to Gusto because I hadn't been there yet in '06. Thankfully, Urchin vetoed in the interest of diversifying and Bear chose Devi.
When you walk into Devi you are faced with a bit of a kitschy room. There are very pretty lamps in myriad colors hanging in little clusters from the red silk ceiling, and a latticed staircase leading up to a lofted dining area in the back half of the room. It all comes together to say "we are Indian and we spent a little more money then everybody else in town to make you aware of it."
Having never been to Devi before, I did some web reading on nymag.com and on their website and found out that these are two chefs that take themselves very seriously, have what is described as a following, and that they have bounced around a little. As a group, we appreciate people who consider themselves adept enough to offer a tasting menu and usually take it as an opportunity for a tour of the skills of a place, so we decided to have the tasting menu with its paired wines. There was also a vegetarian tasting option, which we did not try.
At the beginning of our service, things went so awry that I was pretty sure the reason these guys have had trouble finding a home was that they got wrapped up in being celebrity chefs rather than keeping a handle on the knowledge and skill of their waitstaff. When we first discussed our dinner with our server, we established that we intended to do the tasting menu with the wine parings. He explained that we had landed on the first night of a new tasting menu and he wasn't sure they had had the opportunity to pair them yet. He proceeded to explain that that didn't really matter anyway because he usually suggested getting a bottle of whatever you liked instead since, in the end, if you do the parings you "end up with six courses and six different wines and like fourteen flavors in your mouth."
With such deft, mathematical, advice, we decided he should discuss with the manager/sommelier whether or not they had set up parings yet. They had, so we went along as planned. Our server then explained that he was very busy and would have time to pay proper attention soon. Later, the second wine showed as we finished the second course. In retrospect, I think I appreciate his candor. By the third course he had obviously found his rhythm and the meal progressed very nicely. So in the final count, I am more impressed that he turned it around, than upset by the beginning. We had all but written him off and he managed to win us over. In spite of his horrible assessment of wine neither adding or detracting from the ("too many flavors") of the meal, which was just dumb
As for the food, it really was great. Often when I hear people claim that they are applying the Indian methods to fine dining, the result is food with eastern spice and no conviction. They end up backing off the levels of spice and heat necessary to do the cuisine justice. Not at Devi -- these guys do a great job with heat and depth of flavorful spices. Dishes including multiple spices have the flavor of each individual spice, as well as the flavor of the whole. There is the great sensation of having eaten a beautiful perfume rather than a mash of flavors.
It all started with an amuse bouche of fried stuffed mushroom, a tasty little thing with an artichoke flavor to its stuffing. The first official course was Calcutta Jhaal Muri rice puffs, red onions, chickpeas, green chilies, mustard oil and lemon juice. The air inside the rice seemed to puff the flavors of the dish into your mouth -- some bites lemony, some spicy and some mustardy, all light and fresh. The second bite was the key as it gave the chilies the chance to ramp into the slow burn of good Indian food, not too much, but definitely a component. This was paired with a Danzante Pinot Grigio '04, the sweet fruit and apple notes playing well off the spicy lemon notes of the dish.
I chose Lamb Stuffed Tandoori Chicken tomato chutney in the second slot. I liked this much better than having to combine parts of a mixed Tandoori grill at the typical curry house myself. The two meats came together very well, the lamb adding a richness to the chicken which may be the best way to translate the yogurt marinade of tandoor cuisine. The chutney played well with the natural sweetness of a tomato without faking it up with sugars or other overly sweet things. This course was accompanied with Jackson - Triggs, Sauvignon Blanc '03, again a fruit-forward wine with good acidity playing off the richness of the savory dish.
Next up I went with Veal Liver & Brain Bruschetta veal with quail egg and green chilies, liver with cinnamon, tomatoes and onions. Veal brains and eggs on toast is a Muslim breakfast dish and quite nice. It was rather light and seemed to be mostly about the eggs and chilies. The livers and cinnamon were savory as all get out and the good, deep flavors of the spices involved provided an awesome counterpoint to the lighter half the dish. Chalone Montery Chardonay '04 played nicely off the richness of the eggs, but was lost next to the livers.
Tandoori Prawns eggplant pickle crispy okra was cast in the fourth role by the chefs. Although I strongly suspect these were u6 shrimp rather than prawns, this didn't really matter since the crispy okra kicked so much ass. Turns out there is a way to make okra awesome and it is, as you might expect, to sliver it and fry it. I didn't see the logic in another tandoor offering, especially as strong as the stuffed chicken was, but hey it got us the okra. In either a very bold move or a very naïve move, the wine for this course was CC Cellars Syrah '02. It was an extracted bomb of a red that would have trampled the shrimp, had they not all ready been trampled by the marinade.
For our final savory course, the chefs chose Tandor-Grilled Lamb Chops sweet & sour pear chutney, spiced potatoes. Right off the bat the s on the chops is a lie, it is a lamb chop. It was marinated in the yogurt typical of tandoor, but was grilled rather than baked in the tandoor oven. It was served medium-rare, the bits of singe from the grill adding high points to the sour yogurt marinade. A Lizard Flat Cabernet Merlot Blend '02 was served along side this. If this boring Aussie offering has any place in the world of wine it is with this dish, because the layers of flavor in the Lamb Chop's sides compensated for its one note profile.
For dessert, I chose Emperor's Morsel (Shahi Tukra) Crispy saffron bread pudding, cardamom cream and candied almonds. It was nice to have a dessert that relied more on spices for its flavor than on sugar. Not to fear, though -- the role of sweet was well-played by Sakonet, an ice wine from Rhode Island, dead on the nose but very sugary on the palate and good in this situation.
On the whole I thought dinner was exceptional and I will definitely be going back for the food. I strongly suggest against the wine parings, though. In the long run, all the portions add up to maybe a glass-and-a-half or two of wine, and the most expensive wine we had retails for around $9.99 or under a bottle. The whites were nice and well paired and I like seeing things from places like Canada and Rhode Island, but there really is no value in the additional $40 the pairings cost us.