If It’s Curry, It Has to Have an Accent
Enjoying the sensual tastes of Indian Accent in NYC
There we were, three ‘desis’ tossing back gin and tonics, high above the New York skyline, solving the problems of the world. There is nothing like a refreshing gin and tonic when heat waves are sticking to the body like glue. At some point our bodies began growling for sustenance other than the alcoholic variety. When you have three Indians trying to pick a cuisine, the default choice is inevitable: the spicy cuisine of the motherland.
As a rule, I avoid Indian restaurants. Nothing beats home-made and in any case I do not like to leave a restaurant smelling like a curry shop. But one restaurant had caught my curiosity and I threw out the name just in case my companions acquiesced. And they did. Getting a reservation at this foodie institution is not easy but it was a late hour, mid-week and in true desi style, a few phone calls later we piled into an Uber and were on our way.
Photo: Indian Accent
Minimilist Perfection in Midtown
Multiple things struck me as I walked into the midtown location of Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent on 123 West 56th street. I was amazed at the simplicity in the logo: a bindi over the “I” and the give-away name were the only signs of it being an Indian restaurant. Once we entered, there were no tell-tale decorative pieces from the mother country, no piped shehnai or sitar music, none of the serving staff were remotely Indian and most amazingly, there was not even a whiff of Indian spices in the air. It comes across as an elegant restaurant, slightly upmarket but nothing to set it apart from other NYC restaurants. Until the food started arriving.
We’ll have… twelve dishes.
My dinner companions and I decided to indulge our taste buds and go for four courses each. There are various options from three or four courses to the chef’s tasting menu or even a la carte. Between the three of us we had twelve of the most innovative dishes. Talk about fusion with a total twist. While the tastes were Indian, the presentation was un-Indian and the approach was avant-garde. Our waiter, an elderly white male on his third day at work, served each dish with the aplomb of a khitmatgar complete with his heavily accented Indian pronunciations.
As a tantalizer, the kitchen sent out a twist on the Bambaiya bhel made from green peas. Crispy to bite into and healthily flavorful, the stomach let out a satisfactory growl as it realized the long desired wish was soon to be fulfilled.
Bambaiya bhel (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
Pumpkin shorba paired with a blue cheese nan quickly followed while the kitchen was busy preparing our assortment of dishes. The sommelier consulted with us about the right wine to pair with our main dishes and we settled on a Rioja.
Innovative takes on old favorites.
As we waited for the assault of the main course, our topic strayed into forbidden dinner table conversation: politics. Thankfully we were all aligned in the anti-Trump camp and spent the next quarter of an hour ruing the sanity of his supporters and the anarchic state of US elections. Potato sphere chaat with a white pea mash appeared and we looked bemused at the concoction that had appeared on our table until we realized it was actually an improvement on good old dahi batata puri.
Potato Sphere Chaat (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
The kolhapuri chicken with graveled peanuts and finally chopped cucumbers was served with avocados, not an Indian vegetable by any stretch of the imagination and yet it fit the dish perfectly.
Kolhapuri (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
Not only was the food tantalizing, the presentation matched the food dish on dish. The soya kheema with quail eggs and lime leaf butter pao is simply a variation of street food favorite, pav bhaji. The breads were pierced by a metal skewer and gently laid to rest on a dish next to the kheema glistening with a fresh quail egg and calling out from the bowl. The first touch on our tongue and the food just slid right into the throat cavity. The stomach was now groaning in sheer pleasure. And we were not even halfway done yet.
Soy Keema (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
One tantalizing dish after the other was placed on the table as our enthusiastic server explained what we were eating. At some point we lost track of what dish was what. The tender pathar beef with the garlic chips and bone marrow was devoured so quickly, it probably did not know what hit it. All conversation of Hillary surpassing Trump and accurate poll numbers flew straight out of the window. Our focus was single-minded and it was on our plates as the food kept piling up. Our conversation was simply grunts of appreciation with questions like, “Who wants the last bite?” or simply, ”This is f….ing yummmmm!” The inner child in us and the adult gourmand in us were all fighting for attention. The duck chettinad served with foie gras and idli was a twist on the traditional idli. I have to admit the paper dosa with mushrooms and water chestnuts was a bit of a misfit and got low approval ratings. Ditto the soft shell crab koliwada did not live up to the other dishes. However, the sea bass lightly tainted by tamarind and served with an herbed barley concoction in a Kerala style, slipped down the gullet and screamed for more.
Tamarind Sea Bass (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
As if twelve dishes were not enough, we indulged the inner glutton in us and had ordered a side of the black dal and laccha paratha. The parathas were buttery and so fresh and crumbly. We could have made a whole meal just of the parathas. Black dal is popularly is known as Ma ki daal implying no one makes it better than your mother does. Well Indian Accent proved us wrong. We licked up every last stain clinging to the bowl as we pounced on the dal and quickly annihilated that dish.
The final chapter.
Makhan Malai (Photo: Indian Accent Facebook)
Finally, we were done and we sat back and looked at each other. Our faces said it all. It was like we had just emerged from a surreal gourmet experience. I quickly re-evaluated my desire to stay away from Indian restaurants. If this is the kind of food I get, I am all in. Such flavors, such combinations, such innovation is not replicable in home kitchens.
But wait a second, we were not done. We had forgotten about dessert just as a frothy concoction of orange clouds was set down in from of us. The makhan malai is deceitful. As I dipped my spoon into it, I felt the lightness even before I allowed it to nestle in my mouth. My mouth felt like I was biting into a cloudy froth but the taste was subtle and smooth. Butter, cream, saffron milk crunchy bits of jaggery and almonds offset the froth and added substance to the plate of sin. The patron favorite of barfi treacle tart with vanilla bean ice-cream is equally delicious but for me the makhan malai was literally the icing on the cake that evening.
Back in the Uber on my way back, I lay my head back and once more luxuriated in the experience. I dug deep to bring back the memory of the flavors exploding in my mouth, the visual presentation, the dance of the spices on my tongue and the audible groan of satisfaction as each morsel travelled down my esophagus to take up residence in my intestines. Each bite was a treat. Each dish was a revelation.
New York has some of the finest Indian restaurants but for an exciting gastronomic adventure look no further than this new kid on the block. The original Indian Accent is in Delhi and it makes me proud to see this reverse migration to New York. Indian Accent deserves every bit of its reputation.
And I did not smell like a curry shop when I left the restaurant. Validation indeed.