Saturday, March 20, 2010

8 East 18th Street
New York, NY 10003-1938
(212) 691-1300

Last night our good friends, A & U, took us out to Devi, an ethnically conscious, Manhattan savvy, Indian restaurant near the NYU area of the city. Devi--in most Indian languages--means goddess, and you will invoke her name a few times in course of the evening. The first will be after looking at the prices on the menu. A non-descript entrance leads into an opulent interior in the Rajasthani style. Fantastic colored glass lighting pendants inset with mock semi-precious stones from Faizabad hang from the high ceiling, overseeing earnest faced, uber-palated diners, in a room full of stonework and marble.

There are a few dishes that have made their way into the menus of many Indian restaurants over the past few years, originating from industrial eateries in dense Indian pockets such as Oaktree Lane, mutating onto the menus of fashionable metropolitan ones like Devi, and then tributaring on to the far flung suburbs. Kurkure (crunchy) Bhindi is one of them--finely sliced okra deep fried and garnished with lemon juice, salt, and spices. Manchurian Gobi (cauliflower) is another, fried in a batter with a tomatoey sauce, its roots traceable to Calcutta Chinese food. Bhel Puri is a puffed rice based street food in India that feels strangely impotent in the dimly lit ambience of posh restaurants, neatly presented and cast out of a pyramidal mold, but without the swirl of surrounding entropy that gives it life. Our dinners at Indian restaurants are weighted towards appetizers, an impromptu dim-sum like melee, topped off with a shared entrĂ©e. Right off the bat, the food at Devi feels different—better prepared, better ingredients, more thought behind the process. Chicken Kebabs with ground coriander, and an apricot sauce on the side, dissolve in the mouth--you cannot begin to unravel where one flavor ends and another begins, it is as if a continuum has been reconstructed out of the the finely chopped condiments. If there is one unique aspect to this place, it is the background/foreground pairing of tastes.

Devi is the very best Indian restaurant in the tri-state area. This is not the food of a heavy handed pace bowler who will throw you a sizzling bouncer, nor is this your ho-hum suburban medium pacer with his reliable swing balls. The chef, Suvir Saran, is a an elegant bowler with spin and flight, who moves his ball trickily on the textured pitch of Indian food. I have not had lamb kebabs that have been this tender, I have not had jackfruit biryani this refined (I have not had any jackfruit biryani earlier, for that matter—but this is where the background/foreground comes in). Sample the food--this is the next time that you will take the Devi’s name.

The ambiance of Devi has the phoney ethnicity of a hoighty-toighty Indian restaurant, down to the little lamps along each step on the staircase. It is maybe a legacy of India’s colonial hangover, that an intercourse with the west always needs to be with one’s ethnic foot set plumb forward; or maybe just a proven ploy to attract customers. Whatever be the case, if you can afford this on your wallet, by all means go for it, for this will be the benchmark against which all Indian food here ought to be measured.
Devi on Urbanspoon

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