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Whose Indian Food Really Stands Out?


Suvir Saran
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It's your tomato chutney that's getting the accolades, I bet! The rest is just "icing on the cake".

My jars were all proudly labelled: Suvir's Tomato Chutney, March '03.

Anna N

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

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The desserts Gael mentions have Suvir written all over them.

It's great to read that Diwan is now basically making the eGullet banquet menu available to any customer as a $50 tasting menu. That's just an incredible value, not to mention an instantaneous Indian-food education for anybody who wants to dive into the project.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The food at Diwan is very good, but the food at the Bread Bar at Tabla the other night was much better. I was really surprised because my past experiences were okay, but not at the level of Tuesday nights meal. And there were seven of us and we had about fifteen different dishes so we got to taste a significant number of the dishes on the menu. Probably the best dish was the wrapped tandoori oxtail and the braised brisket of beef was delicious as well. Having beef on the menu adds a dimension to the experience that is much welcomed IMHO. I hadn't been in years but I am definitely going back soon to try the dishes I didn't get to try this time. Plus I guess I need to visit the main restaurant as well, a place I didn't like at all when it first opened. But based on Tuesday's meal, it appears they have made huge strides in mastering their original concept.

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Well you need to go back with us. We have figured out the secret code :cool:.

Seriously, the braised beef brisket which comes in a little iron tureen, handle and all, and which is braised in a light broth that is mildly spiced, what's not to like about that dish? It could have been served in a Mexican restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a French restaurant, etc. all with the spicing routine tweaked for local custom. If it's top quality beef and it's prepared well, how can it be bad? Same with the tandoori oxtail which is wrapped in a Nan like bread. The oxtail was highly flavorful, gelatinous texture that was in balance, and it wasn't overly spiced. How could that be bad?

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There are one or two beef dishes in india that really hit the spot ( particularly those that come from Kerulan Christian kitchens )

The problem is not with the beef per se, it is used in India ( if in a limited way because of the obvious religious restrictions ) my concern is more that Tabla ( and I am not sure I would even call this place an Indian restaurant ) has displayed all the cackhandedness of those who don't know what they are doing with the ingredients or the spices.

one dish I had there ( a spiced quail ) was one of the nastiest dishes I have ever tried in the US. The preparation of the bread was poor ( a good way to judge any Indian place ) and I found the whole thing a bit "square peg in a round hole"

In effect what they are doing is exactly as you said, taking standard western techniques and "tweaking for local custom"

Still, all his other places have never let me down so I shouldn't complain too much

S

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Plotnicki, you're just displaying a preference for French food over Indian food (again). No surprise there. Judged by the standards of Indian cuisine, Tabla fails miserably. Judged by the standards of French cuisine, of course it's better than Diwan -- it's basically a French restaurant that uses a lot of Indian spices.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Really, Simon? I mean, I know London excels at Indian cuisine, but in my opinion Diwan is an excellent restaurant. There's far too much going on there to label it "fine, no more."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The problem is not with the beef per se, it is used in India ( if in a limited way because of the obvious religious restrictions ) my concern is more that Tabla ( and I am not sure I would even call this place an Indian restaurant ) has displayed all the cackhandedness of those who don't know what they are doing with the ingredients or the spices.

Simon - Well yes but this is what I noticed has improved. They have toned down the intensity of the spicing routine so that the food now tastes balanced. It never used to be that way in the past. It used to be hit and miss. At least not when I used to go there which was 2-3 years ago. It used to be that they thought they could take a Western dining concept, luxury proteins, and spice them like Indian food is spiced. What you ended up with was something out of balance. In fact I had this experience last fall at Zaika in London. They have a risotto dish on the menu and the dish is so highly spiced that it isn't enjoyable. If they toned it down, the dish would probably be enjoyable. And it was this "changed" aspect of the cuisine that made it taste good. You could actually taste the quality and the flavor of the brisket and oxtail, something that would probably have been drowned out by the spices when they first opened.

Plotnicki, you're just displaying a preference for French food over Indian food (again). No surprise there. Judged by the standards of Indian cuisine, Tabla fails miserably.

Fat Guy - You mean I am displaying a preference for meats that actually taste like meat because they are of good quality and they aren't drowned out with spices? A preference for better quality is a bias? I would think that a blindness towards better quality just because something is authentic and disregarding that the standards could be better, now that's a bias.

I'm not interested in labels. I only care about good food. I personally don't care if that brisket dish is authentic, French, Chinese or anything else. Good food is good food and it transcends point of origination. And all I can tell you is that six of the seven people at Tabla were at the Diwan banquet and to a person, they all thought the Bread Bar was much better then Diwan. And it has nothing to do with their preferences, and everything to do with their preferring better food regardless of preferences :wink:.

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The tandoori lamb tenderloin at Tabla Bread Bar was very delicious, tender (but not mushy) pink meat. A little casserole of lotus root and what might have been baby bok choi (?) was refreshing, and the rice pilaf was tasty and well-cooked. (I was told that the Bread Bar is closer to more traditional Indian food than the dining room upstairs.) I found the food less starchy than the food at Diwan. Also, a second dinner at Diwan on a Sunday night when the chef wasn't in was disastrous.

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Fat Guy - You mean I am displaying a preference for meats that actually taste like meat because they are of good quality and they aren't drowned out with spices? A preference for better quality is a bias? I would think that a blindness towards better quality just because something is authentic and disregarding that the standards could be better, now that's a bias.

The word "bias" is yours. The word I'll supply is "ignorance": your ignorance about Indian cuisine. You know how when newbies show up on eGullet and say things like "whatever wine you like is good," and you hound them mercilessly, lording your superior knowledge over them? Well, now it's your turn to sit back and learn, because you don't know what you're talking about. Your palate isn't trained to taste and parse complex spice mixtures. You don't have sufficient experience eating at real Indian restaurants. You don't understand the relevant techniques, ingredients, and standards. And you don't exhibit much of a desire to learn -- to "decode the mysteries" of Indian cuisine, as you have tried to do with wine. At least some of us are open-minded enough to get out there and try to learn, read, and taste. So, sure, given that you're someone who revels in the familiar, you're going to like what you appreciate. But saying that something is better just because it's what you happen to comprehend is a willfully uninformed gesture. I'm far more inclined to listen to Toby if she says Tabla is better than Diwan, because she approaches things with an open mind. Her argument, whatever it is, might make sense. Yours is, so far, unimpressive.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As for Diwan.  I found it fine, no more.  Certainly no more than a mid level London Indian restaurant

I have only eaten at Diwan once, at the eGullet banquet. I described it then as excellent, and almost as good as the New Tayyab in London, which is (at present) the highest accolade I could give an Indian restaurant.

Now I'll allow for the possibility that the meal I had at Diwan was exceptional, both in terms of the care taken and the dishes selected by Hemant Mathur. After all, they had only recently opened, and Suvir was integrally involved in the arrangements, so of course they were trying really hard. But the sheer quality of ingredients, recipes, preparation and serving suggested to me that the place had fundamental class. No matter how hard they were trying, if the basic talent wasn't there, they would still have screwed up.

Of course I'm not for an instant suggesting that Simon is "wrong" in judging his experience ordinary. He is far more of an expert than I in Indian food. But I suspect that for some reason Simon didn't experience the best that Diwan has to offer. Maybe he chose some ordinary dishes, maybe Hemant was out when Simon ate there (I recall Suvir suggesting that the back-up chefs aren't great).

For myself, after just one experience, Diwan is on my "will go" list for my next trip to NYC.

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... to "decode the mysteries" of Indian cuisine, as you have tried to do with wine. At least some of us are open-minded enough to get out there and try to learn, read, and taste. So, sure, given that you're someone who revels in the familiar, you're going to like what you appreciate. But saying that something is better just because it's what you happen to comprehend is a willfully uninformed gesture. I'm far more inclined to listen to Toby if she says Tabla is better than Diwan, because she approaches things with an open mind. Her argument, whatever it is, might make sense. Yours is, so far, unimpressive.

While it's nice to know as much as one can about everything under the sun, I don't think it's necessary to 'decode the mysteries' of any cuisine to enjoy eating it and make comparisons about it. If I eat something that's delicious, I might like to know how it's made so I can cook it at home; knowing how it's made -- what the spicing components, cooking techniques are -- is secondary to whether or not something tastes delicious to me. As for comparisons, while the food at Tabla Bread Bar may not be as authentically Indian in spicing, ingredients, as the food at Diwan, I found it more varied and brighter in taste. That's my argument.

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Toby, do you reject the notion, then, of "acquired taste"?

I can certainly see the quality-of-ingredients argument going in Tabla's favor, though not on every ingredient. As for more varied and brighter, I really don't agree with that. But I suppose it's hard to quantify, and it's not like I was at the specific meal you're talking about. Still, I found the food at Diwan extremely varied and "bright."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Toby, do you reject the notion, then, of "acquired taste"?

I'm not sure what "acquired taste" means when speaking about food; I lean more to food memory in how I evaluate food. Also, I think palates change, and the amount of salt you get used to using changes your palate as well.

"Brightness" is a quality in food that's very important to me, but difficult to describe. It has something to do with how the taste of the food moves about once it's in your mouth. I guess the opposite taste sensation would be "stodgy." I like stews and braised food, and think being able to bring a bright/light taste to foods that have been longer cooked is an important qualification. I thought the egullet meal at Diwan lacked balance in that there were no stews/braised/curry dishes. When I revisited Diwan, I ordered a braised lamb dish; it was totally undistinguished, a dull brown glop. Since the chef wasn't there that night, I'm not able to judge how the dish would have tasted made correctly.

Edited by Toby (log)
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That's no excuse, of course: the chef has to take responsibility for everything that comes out of the kitchen, whether he's there or not. But what I mean by "acquired taste," in this context, is experience in identifying the components that distinguish the best examples of the cuisine in question. For example, if you've been eating in steakhouses all your life, and you suddenly find yourself in a sushi restaurant, you have no frame of reference. You need an education. Someone needs to walk you through a sushi tasting so you can taste the chu-toro next to the o-toro. You need to be clued in to the standards. Sure, basic deliciousness comes into play, but many of the stronger flavors of sushi are what I'd call counterintuitive: the very fishy/metallic taste of mackerel, or the iodine taste of uni. You don't just come into the world knowing good uni from bad. When it comes to Indian cuisine, one of the distinguishing characteristics -- perhaps the major one -- is complexity of spicing. Many dishes have 20+ spices in them, and each of those spices is manipulated in a certain way: ground, toasted, used whole and removed later, or whatever -- the options, combinations, and permutations are limitless. But nobody who is accustomed to eating French food can just pick up a fork and grasp the full-on complexity of Indian spicing. Most Americans, for example, are quite happy to get their Indian spicing from commercially prepackaged curry powders. That to them is the sum total of the Indian food experience. What those people need to be taught is, first, what the individual spices taste like when treated in various ways. Then they need to taste them in simple combinations. Finally, they can start to differentiate and grasp the subtlety of the complex mixtures. And they can start to see where Tabla falls short when compared to Diwan. It's certainly possible that Tabla gets, for example, better lamb. But I am quite certain that when it comes to the spicing of that lamb Diwan is the clear winner. Floyd is a terrific chef, but I'm sorry, he just doesn't have Hemant's facility with spices. He should go and study under Hemant for awhile.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The Bread Bar serves food that is more conventionally Indian than the main restaurant and I think it is fair to compare it to Diwan. I find both to be inconsistent based on several meals at the Bread Bar and two at Diwan. When they’re good they’re very good but they can both be pretty ordinary.

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I am willing to listen to Fat Bloke's argument, but I'm not sure I buy it. I started eating Indian food when I was about eight or nine years old. I wasn't introduced to it by an expert, and certainly nobody taught me what the spices taste like, one by one. I've eaten it all my life, I can cook a few Indian dishes competently. While I could probably identify the main spices in an indian dish by tasting it, to this day I couldn't tell you which have been toasted, how they were incorporated in the dish, or all the other technical stuff Fat Bloke refers to.

Can I distinguish between good, middling and poor Indian cuisine. Absolutely; easily and reliably. Perhaps it's more to do with experience than with precise technical knowledge.

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the braised beef brisket which comes in a little iron tureen, handle and all, and which is braised in a light broth that is mildly spiced, what's not to like about that dish? It could have been served in a Mexican restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a French restaurant, etc. all with the spicing routine tweaked for local custom.

G.: This description, from Plotnicki, hardly sounds like food that is "conventionally Indian." Ditto the "little casserole of lotus root and what might have been baby bok choi." I have no objection to those dishes; they may be great; but I don't see them as conventional.

Toby: I hear the emperor's new clothes argument all the time about every restaurant that has a reputation for being good. I especially hear it from people who haven't ever tasted a Peter Luger steak, or been to Sushi Yasuda, or enjoyed any of the other quintessential food experiences. And I get a lot of apologies later on, of the "I was blind but now I can see" variety. Not always, but often.

Wilfrid: Am I to assume from your comments that you were at the meal in question and believe Tabla's bread bar is a better restaurant than Diwan? If so, what is your reasoning?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Life-long consumption of good Indian food (as opposed to Bengali/6th-Street all-you-can-eat steam-table crap) is certainly one way to understand it. But if you want to show up at age 120 and start eating it, you need some sort of crash course. And I'm not assuming you're 120 years old. That was just an example.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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