Monday, June 26, 2006

New York v. Houston Part 3 - Battle Indian Fusion

I am very excited about Indian fusion food - largely because of two recent meals I had in Houston and New York City.

Houston's Indika has moved to lower Westheimer. My recent meal there was spicy and inventive. I started with an appetizer of karela stuffed with cashew masala. Karela is an unusual, bitter melon -- not bittersweet, just bitter. The bitterness alone would have been overwhelming, but it became complex and interesting when combined with a spicy cashew masala. This dish was a combination of an exotic Indian ingredient with traditional spices. I have never seen another dish quite like it, and I expect it was completely original. Another exotic appetizer on the menu was goat brain masala. I have to try that next time.

My entree was equally interesting-- grilled halibut with fenugreek, tomato, ginger and cumin curry. The spices were very hot. Again, the flavor reminded me of a traditional Indian dish, but the choice of fish and other ingredients was creative and unique.

Indika has a small, but well-considered wine list. I ordered the 2003 Amberly Semillon / Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. Its slight sweetness and crisp acidity paired well with the spicy foods. The deserts looked good, but after only two dishes, I could eat no more.

Tabla, on Madison Avenue in New York, has a reputation as the first and best Indian fusion restaurant in Manhattan. Their wine list is also well considered, but much larger -- at least 10 times as large as Indika's list. Tabla offers a 3-course prix fixe meal, a 5-course tasting menu, and a 7-course tasting menu. I ordered the 5-course.

One of the best dishes was a fricassee of morels - stewed mushrooms on top of polenta with coconut milk and kokum. Morels are my favorite mushroom - complex and earthy wrinkled balls. Although the preparation and flavors were more French than Indian, this dish was outstanding.

Another great dish was a slow roasted Nova Scotia lobster served with wild mushrooms, water chestnuts, walnuts and a spicy red sauce. Again, the preparation was all French, but Indian spices added a kick to the dish.

I also had a tapioca-crusted soft shell crab and baby lamb with asparagus and fava beans. Both dishes were good, but had few qualities of Indian cuisine other than some accents of Indian minor ingredients and spices.

The tasting menu came with a 5 glass wine pairing. I appreciated that I had the chance to let someone else determine what wine would go best with Indian spices. Each of the wines worked.

Comparison - cuisine. Indika and Tabla offer two different takes on Indian fusion. I slightly prefer Indika. Its food is both more traditional Indian in its flavors and techniques and more exotic in its ingredients and combinations. Tabla more closely resembles French and American cooking styles and ingredients accented with some Indian spices. It is safer food, aimed at the western palate. On the plus side, Tabla gets points for providing more variety in the meal by offering a tasting menu. Tabla also gets points for providing wine pairings and for offering a much more complete wine list.

Comparison - service. I don't usually mention service, but in this instance the difference may say something about the cities. At Tabla, we were greeted warmly at the door, seated when we arrived, and given impeccable service. But the waiter did not seem very interested in discussing the food. At Indika, the waiter was knowledgeable and pleasantly excited about discussing the food. But when we arrived at the time of our reservation and gave the unfriendly hostess our name, she just sighed, looked up at the ceiling, and said, "you can sit at the bar." We then waited over thirty minutes for our table, despite our reservation. Neither the hostess nor anyone else apologized. I appreciate the Houston restaurant's sincere enthusiasm about the food, but I also appreciate the New York restaurant's much smoother service.

Comparison - price. Although the wine prices were about the same, the bill at Tabla was almost three times the price of the bill at Indika.

I highly recommend both restaurants, but for a more interesting take on Indian cuisine, and for better value, I prefer Indika. Still, Indika could learn a few things from Tabla -- expand the wine list, suggest wine pairings, offer a tasting menu, and improve the service, particularly at the front door.

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