Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tabla: Better Late Than Never

The announcement came as a total shock, taking myself and many others completely by surprise. In a letter posted on their website, Chef Floyd Cardoz regretfully informed the public that, after a run of ten years, Tabla would be shutting its doors at the end of 2010. Having earned three stars from the New York Times, Tabla was known for marrying French technique with Indian flavors and had long sat atop my ever expanding list of must-try restaurants. But it's said that every cloud has a silver lining and the unfortunate news of the restaurant's impending closure proved more than enough motivation for me to finally reserve a table before it bid the public adiéu.

Sharing an adjacent space with its celebrated sister, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla had previously been partitioned into two different areas: with the informal Bread Bar occupying the downstairs and the restaurant's dining room located above. However, as years past, the Bread Bar was eventually scrapped and the entire space was dedicated to the restaurant. Arriving on a Friday evening, both floors appeared to be filled. For a restaurant on the verge of closing, Tabla was not exactly hurting for business.

The dining room contained emerald walls, wooden floors and white tablecloths with a few Indian motifs scattered throughout, emitting a subdued yet elegant ambiance. Having heard nothing but good things about Tabla's cocktail service, we veered towards these rather than wine or beer. MW started with a Pomegranate Gimlet, a cocktail containing Plymouth Gin with Pomegranate Juice and Fresh Lime Juice; whereas I chose the Maker Smile containing a Ginger-Infused Makers Mark, Fresh Lemon Juice and Soda. Both were good, went well with the food and were original.

Tabla offers diners three menu options: a la carte or two Wazwan, or tasting menus. Wanting to experience as many of Chef Cardoz's dishes, we chose the seven-course Tabla Tasting, instead of the smaller five-course Tabla Tour. As with many Danny Meyer restaurants, Tabla's menu is seasonally driven, often reflecting ingredients sourced from the Union Square Green Market. A trio of amuses arrived shortly: Curry Dusted Popcorn, Chili Pickled Carrots and Fried Chickpeas. Each were a pleasant snack as we sipped our drinks. Just as our meal at The Modern (another Meyer restaurant) began with popcorn, so too did ours at Tabla, only instead of being coated with porcini, ours were sprinkled with curry and proved to be a superior version. The pickled carrots contained a subtle kick from the chili without overwhelming the mouth and the crunchy chickpeas were a nice deviation from the standard bowl of nuts.

Seeing how Tabla was an Indian-influenced restaurant, it figured that bread service would feature Naan bread. Compared to other versions, Tabla's naan arrived straight from the tandoor and had a crispier exterior that had been given a generous brushing of ghee. While excellent all by itself, we preferred to dip the pillowy bread into the trio of Chutneys: Preserved Lemon, Pear and Tomato; with the tomato and pear being our favorites.

Our first course was a Duo of Soups: a Tomato-Fennel Soup with Franca's Cranberry Beans, Lucknow Fennel and Horseradish Raita and a Paffenroth Gardens Pumpkin Rasam Soup with Toasted Coconut, Lentils and Tamarind. Between the two soups the tomato-basil was tangier, containing a good amount of acid from the tomatoes. The pumpkin, on the other hand, was heartier, more savory and ultimately stole the show. Chef Cardoz's pumpkin soup was a study of contrasting flavors and textures, juxtaposing the sweetness of the pumpkin and coconut with the bitterness of the tamarind while providing a textural contrast with the velvety smooth soup against the crunchy pumpkin seeds. It was truly ethereal.

Next was a deviation from our printed menu. Instead of hamachi, we received a Tuna Tartare with Jalapeño, Apple and Pomegranate. Having been recently singled out by San Francisco chef, Daniel Patterson as being Manhattan's most ubiquitous dish, I too, often find tuna tartrare rather uninspired. Admittedly, more typical of many Asian-fusion restaurants than an Indian restaurant, Tabla's tartare featured heat from the jalapeño, crunch of the apple and sweet bursts of pomegranate, showcasing Chef Cardoz's ability to breathe new life into this otherwise stale dish.

Before proceeding to the next course, we ordered another round of cocktails. MW ordered a second Pomegranate Gimlet while I tried the Kachumber Kooler with Plymouth Gin, Cucumber, Cilantro and Green Chilies.

This was followed by the Rice Flaked Halibut with Satur Farms Baby Carrots, Baby Turnips and Sun Dried Ginger Broth. Our favorite course of the entire meal, the thick piece of halibut had a wonderfully crisp rice coating but remained perfectly moist. Having never heard of sun dried ginger, the slightly spicy broth complimented the mild flavor of the fish as well as the sweetness of the baby vegetables quite well.

Good, but not quite as great as the halibut, were the Pan Roasted Day Boat Scallops with Cherry Lane Eggplant, Tomatillo, Baby Shiitakes, Jaggery and Lime. Unsure whether the Chef intentionally overseasoned the scallops, as they were far too salty on their own, they tasted wonderful when combined with rest of the vegetables, which had a good deal of acidity, helping tame the dish's salinity.

The Dry Aged Striploin of Beef with Potatoes Au Gratin, Berried Treasures Farms Beans and Mustard Green Relish was our final savory course for the evening. Unfortunately, it was one of the meals few disappointments. While the dish wasn't bad per se - that is to say, nothing was technically wrong - the beef just lacked the funky minerally flavor you expect from a piece of dry aged beef.

Our dessert was a Chocolate Thai Chili Soufflé with Coconut Ice Cream. Although the soufflé was perhaps the smallest version I've ever seen, it was delicious. Like the pickled carrots to begin our meal, the tuna tartare and the Kachumber Kooler, Pastry Chef Rachel Binder displayed her deft ability to balance just the right amount of heat, thus exciting the palate without it becoming the predominate taste. Any residual burn from the chili was extinguished from the refreshing coconut ice cream.

To finish the meal, we were presented with a plate of Tabla Chocolates: Milk Chocolate Praline and Dark Milk Chocolates.

In an interview after revealing Tabla's forthcoming closure, Chef Cardoz provided additional insight as to this untimely decision, saying that the restaurant was ill suited for such a large space, adding that, provided they found the right space, the restaurant would likely be reincarnated. Whether this information was purely public relations double talk or the truth remains to be seen, but should Tabla indeed return, you can be sure I won't make the same mistake twice.

11 Madison Ave
New York, New York 10010
(212) 889-0667

To see all our pictures click the flickr link.

Tabla on Urbanspoon


  1. I suppose I really need to go into this under the guise that this is not an Indian restaurant, but rather a restaurant with Indian influences, which would make a lot more sense than expecting what I'm more inclined to think of as Indian food, hm?

  2. @Feisty Foodie - I would. For me, I don't feel traditional Indian fare is justified at these prices. However, if you like Indian flavor profiles presented in different forms, then I think Tabla succeeds along the lines of Devi and Tamarind.