Every time I utter the word “dévi,” peoples’ eyes light up.
Then, they glaze over and roll into the back of their heads in a moment of nostalgic ecstasy. When they recover, they inevitably make some enthusiastic exclamation followed by, “It’s *very* good Indian food.”
I like *very* good Indian food. But, I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Indian food. It’s one of those world cuisines that I’m constantly striving to learn more about.
What I do know, from reading quite a bit about Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur, the co-executive chefs at dévi are extremely talented and offer one of the best modern Indian dining experiences in New York, if not the United States. I was excited to finally check out the hype.
My friends and I agreed to have the five-course “Chef’s Tasting Menu.” Although each course offers choices, we were informed that the chef would like to cook the last two courses for us and send out desserts. We would only need to decide on which of the first two courses we wanted.
There were only two choices for each of the first two courses. So, our party of four divided the plates so that we’d get to try both.
Here is what our party had:
Dahi Batata Puri
Wheat hollows, potato-chickpea salad, tamarind and mint chutneys, yogurt, chickpea noodles
Shakarkandi Ki Chaat
Crispy sweet potatoes, toasted cumin, lemon juice, chaat masala
Roasted red pepper chutney, Manchurian cauliflower, spicy bitter-orange marmalade
Spicy garlic-infused tomato sauce, scallions
Veal Brain and Liver Toasts
Veal brain with quail eggs and cilantro, liver with onion-tomato sauce and cinnamon
Pomegranate marinade, crispy okra salad
Tandoor-Grilled Lamb Chops
Sweet & sour pear chutney, spiced potatoes
Emperor’s Morsel (Shahi Tukra)
crispy saffron bread pudding, cardamom cream, candied almonds
Indian ice cream, mango passion fruit sauce, fleur de sel, black peppercorn
Lemon cake, lemon-lemongrass sorbet, lemon curd
Rosewater-almond cookie crust, mango paté de fruit, mango crisp
We let the wine director choose two bottles for us. He started us off with Marcel Deiss Riesling and switched over to La Crema Pinot Noir (2006, Anderson Valley) somewhere between the third and fourth courses. I thought both paired quite well with our food. Surprisingly, I favored the pinot noir, a varietal whose domestic growth I tend not to like.
But, the grassiness of the wine mellowed out the aggressive flavors quite nicely.
Chef Mathur (who stopped by our table later to say hello) is not afraid of spice and flavor. Virtually everything we had was packed with both.
Mathur isn’t shy with heat either. He confidently incorporates it into nearly every dish at some level.
The two first courses are particularly good examples. The Dahi Batata Puri, impossibly thin, hollow wheat puffs filled with a potato-chickpea “salad,” whose coating of puckeringly-sour tamarind dressing was tempered by a creamy, cool mint yogurt sauce, was pointedly spicy. In fact, every corner of those two bites were ripping with piquancy.
While the Shakarkandi Ki Chaat is not the most attractive creation, it probably the most unforgettable eating experience of the evening. The cake of diced sweet potatoes were at once soft and crispy. It’s as if they were first deep-fried and then lightly tossed with sauce and plated – the texture of tempura the nano-second after the dashi dunk. The flavor was no less dynamic than the Dahi Batata Puri. This was redolent with smoky cumin and laced with bracing, bright lemon tartness. Although milder than the other first course, this one was not shy on heat, either.
The one dish that everyone raves about is the Manchurian Cauliflower. I had no idea what to expect, given that this was a Chinese-named dish being served at an Indian restaurant. I’ll sum it up in four words: sweet and sour cauliflower. These large florets appeared to be lightly battered, fried and then coated in a sticky sauce reminiscent to that which is used with chicken or pork at Chinese restaurants.
The other courses were very good. Notably, the lamb Tandoor-Grilled Lamb Chop was extraordinarily tender; it’s almost as if someone had gone to town with a meat mallet. The marinade (I’m guessing yogurt-based, which probably contributed to the tenderness of the meat) was full of flavor, as were the potatoes on the side. My chop was (noticeably) about half the size of my friends’. Had I not been rather full, I would have been terribly upset. As it was, I was mildly disappointed by this.
Chef Hemant sent out an extra Tandoori Prawn for each of us. Beautifully-cooked, each prawn was the size of a small house pet, and brimming with bounce. Marinated in pomegranate juice and rubbed with spices, it offered a world of flavors: sweet, sour, savory, smoky and spicy. The crispy okra salad, an item on the a la carte menu that I had wanted to try, came with the prawn. It was a pile of shaved and desiccated (fried) okra with fresh onions, tomatoes and spices.
With the prawns, the chef sent out an order of the Spinach Goat Cheese Paratha, which was something like a paratha and palak paneer quesadilla. The warm, fluffy wedges came with a loose yogurt sauce on the side. If I were to loose all sense of decency and restraint, I’m sure I could handily down a couple basketfuls of these parathas without blinking.
Less impressive was the Grilled Scallop, which, though perfectly-cooked, was rather forgettable. Sauced with a red pepper chutney, the scallop was accompanied by single Manchurian cauliflower floret.
The two offal-topped toasts were good, but not the exciting find that I was anticipating. The brains were exceedingly creamy and perhaps purposely served slightly cold. I’ve never had slightly cold brains. I’m not sure I like them slightly cold. But, I did like the flavor of the brains, especially with cilantro, which helped freshen them up a bit.
If for nothing else, I appreciated the liver toast for the interesting combination of tomato and cinnamon, which helped temper the otherwise strong liver flavor.
Sadly, service handicapped what was an otherwise rather successful dinner. First, they repeatedly served me things I was allergic to. I admit that I failed to notify them of my allergies (mango, eggplant and kiwi) at first. I was reminded that I needed to do so when the amuse bouche arrived. It was a folded phyllo cup filled with a mango salad of some sort.
They graciously (and quickly) exchanged it for a Seafood and Crab Croquette with pickled green chile mayonnaise (it’s on their regular menu). The molten-hot ball of minced seafood had a thick, crunchy, dark-golden crust. It was the first hit of appreciable heat of the evening for me; it made me glad I was allergic to mango.
Later, our tandoori prawns showed up on a bed of eggplant stew. I looked at it for a second. My friends were just about to say something when another server whisked the plate away, apologizing for the mistake. My prawn returned with a slightly sweet tomato chutney.
The kitchen sent out four different desserts. Given that they knew I was allergic to mango, I’m boggled as to why they would choose three mango desserts when there were more than three non-mango desserts on their regular menu. (I have no reason to doubt our server, but, I’m doubtful that there was actually a mango tuile on the “Lemon Trio.”)
The only dessert (out of the four) that I could eat – the restaurant’s signature “Emperor’s Morsel” – wasn’t even given to me. Of course we traded plates. Of course, I didn’t need to try four desserts (although my friends were able to sample every one). (I really shouldn’t be complaining since there are only two choices on the Chef’s Tasting Menu.) But, it would have been nice to see some level of forethought and care, if not coordination among the staff.
The Emperor’s Morsel is described as a saffron “bread pudding.” I’d liken the texture to spongey fried dough. There was a faint hint of saffron, but cardamon took a more aggressive roll. Although it sent the dessert sailing into the “too-sweet” territory, I loved the pistachio brittle bits scattered on the plate for crunchy texture.
There were a few other rocky moments in service, like when our lamb showed up immediately after our shrimp. The captain shooed the servers away, cleared our plates, and served us a refreshing intermezzo of (half-melted) yogurt and mint sorbet before recalling the chops to our table.
I must admit that my expections of dévi were coloured by its Michelin one star rating. I know that many (especially local New York fine diners) put little, if any stock in the Michelin Guide Rouge New York. And, for the same reason, it may be unbelievable (or beside the point) to some that I found dévi a couple of shades more casual than I had been expecting.
Yes, I was anticipated (although not necessarily hoping for) something a little more refined. (This observation sparked a rather lively discussion, subsequently.)
However, even though service at our table verged on amateurish at times, I can’t say that dévi was too casual to bear. It was refreshing to enjoy wonderfully-executed food in a relaxed setting. I suppose there’s something special and wholly unique about eating shakarkandi ki chaat and sipping German Riesling with the sultry, smoky stylings of Nora Jones playing in the background.
The restaurant’s colourful schema is quite lovely. Next time, I’m going to request one of the gauze-lined banquette tables in the back of the ground level room. The bar is more pathetic and useless than the bar at Adour at the St. Regis. It’s as if a Tiki hut from Waikiki Beach landed at some random Indian restaurant near Union Square.
Overall, dévi’s food was very good, some of it was great. Given time, I’m sure I’ll return with adjusted expectations and will eagerly try many of the other items on the menu.
8 East 18th Street
New York, New York 10003