409 3rd Avenue, www.vatanny.com
It was Diwali, the festival of lights, and U was not having her usual dinner this year. I wanted a somewhat offbeat, but good Indian restaurant in the city to mark Diwali, and we picked Vatan. I had been here 10 years ago, and had not been impressed—the food was oily and heavy. Since then, the place has undergone a sea of change.
Vatan is a vegetarian Indian restaurant that serves Gujarati food. The interior is spacious, tastefully designed to look like a village courtyard in western India, replete with a faux banyan tree. The lighting enhances the sense of space, the dining tables kept apart, unlike other Manhattan restaurants. The laid back demeanour of the wait staff, the Bollywood art film colors and dresses, and the ambience imposes a sense of comfort.
London had its Indian diaspora of the 90’s, the Punjabi—Jamaican influence. In the 2000’s New York City has its own Indian diaspora—gaggles of twenty somethings in black clothes, who hang around the trendy Indian restaurants in Manhattan. They fuel the financial industry in the city, the men in rectangular glasses, the women-- resolutely straight of hair--scarfed up for the winter. Sprightly, slim, handsome faces under the fluorescents and the restaurant lights, the glows of the exit signs, they stay for another dinner, another night out, another polished cog in this glistening city, another night to go back to their apartments to read Tom Friedman. This is the new culture, part dhamaka, part Friedman, Indianism in Manhattan.
Vataan has a 3 course prixe-fixe menu and I recommend this. The first thali (platter) are the appetizers. They offer seconds and I recommend that you take them up on this. The starters are the best part of the menu. Good food brings back good memories. The batata vada, spicy mashed potatoes in a batter, fresh as the one made by the street vendor at the Kamala Nehru Park in Pune. Dahi(yogurt) Puri, of long lost afternoons on Rashbehari at Junior Brothers. Deceptive battered green chillies that will light a fire on your tongue. There is dhokla, a Gujarati special, a puffy cake like thing made of rice and dal, chana (a curry made of Bengal gram), that I first had at the public markets in Bhuj. There is little oiliness, and dollops of authenticity. The second platter consists of the main dishes--rice, pooris and delicate kadhi--these are fine dishes but they lack the hard-to-find-in-New York quality of the first platter. It all ends with dessert: mango ice cream that tastes like it was picked up at the corner grocery store. This is what is incomprehensible about Indian restaurants in New York—their fluctuating quality control. But then I did not come here for the ice cream. Vatan dished up absolutely the best batata vadas that I have had in years, and for that alone, I would be back here again.