One of the most revelatory parts of Padma Lakshmi’s new memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate doesn’t involve famous novelists or glamorous modeling gigs, but her precise definition of what she calls chaatpati, the umami-like twang of Indian-style deliciousness that helped shape Lakshmi’s tastes as a child. “When a snack combined saltiness, tartness, sweetness, and spiciness in that magical, mouth-smacking proportion,” she writes, “then that snack had chaatpati.”
Much like charisma, you either have chaatpati, or you don’t. And some of the best dishes at Indian Accent, a new restaurant expanding on Indian fine dining in New York, have it.
The restaurant’s name may sound ill-considered at first, but Indian Accent is no joke. It’s a highly anticipated import from India, the second location of a blockbuster owned by Rohit Khattar in Delhi. The chef is Manish Mehrotra, already a star at home from his big win on Foodistan, one of the country’s most popular televised cooking competitions.
Much as in Delhi, his kitchen serves contemporary Indian food in a sleek dining room: Some dishes take inspiration from the street vendors who sell made-to-order snacks called chaat, delivering a thousand beautiful, crunchy variations of tang and heat, while others reimagine regional home cooking in elegant, flavor-packed compositions that make use of luxury ingredients such as foie gras.
The menu in Midtown has notable deviations: This being spring in Manhattan, there’s a mania of ramps wilted over the fresh paneer, the cheese soft and sweet as ricotta, but cut and fried so it looks more like deluxe mozzarella sticks. And the kulchas, those charred flatbreads, are stuffed with finely chopped pastrami, a beefy riff that wouldn’t play nearly as well in Mehrotra's kitchen back home. They’re excellent with a cocktail.
The shakarkhandi is also good, a pile of red-skinned, white-fleshed sweet potato fried in small pieces so each one is almost creamy inside. A “potato sphere chaat” involves strands of potato compressed into a crisp ball, under yogurt and tamarind sauce. Mehrotra serves delicious morels, stuffed with more morels brightened with green chilies and warmed with a mixture of sweet brown spices called garam masala, fried in butter. They're exquisite. One of the most impressive updates comes at dessert, a cloud of saffron-infused malai; the reduced milk shot here from the tip of a nitrous oxide-charged canister. It arrives under a confetti of rose petals and jaggery (a raw sugar with a diamond crunch) and it’s spectacular, with all the flavor of pure, sweet milk and none of its weight.
The quality of the service varies by server. Some are warm and professional and can identify every element on the plate without going back to the kitchen to ask. One, while setting down a shot of warm, delicious soup, grinned widely and said, “Oh man, you should see your faces right now, you’re all like, whaaaat, I didn’t order this!” It’s hard to imagine a worse way to offer someone an amuse bouche—no one wants feedback on their faces at dinner.
The weaker compositions at Indian Accent can appear more as ray-gun miniaturizations—cute, but insufficient. A single rib under a cloyingly sweet glaze was cooked so it was tender, but lacked depth, with nothing to balance its sugar. It seemed less like a carefully composed course in a $110 dinner and more like a little snack you’ll pull off a passed tray at a very nice cocktail reception. And idlis, the soulful, savory cakes made from a batter of fermented rice, were rendered so small as to be almost imperceptible under a piece of seared foie gras.
Still, Indian Accent is busy all the time, drawing a crowd of handsome Indian thirtysomethings whose shirts suggest they might work in finance, women on dates with perfect, shiny hair and no makeup, and parents with pashminas over their shoulders or knees, out for dinner with their grownup children. Sometimes, the dining room is dominated by middle-aged men in suits, sitting at six small tables pushed together, drinking whiskey under the exceedingly bright faux skylight.
The restaurant asks diners to choose between a three-course or four-course menu, or do a long, eight-course tasting. The idea is perhaps to get away from sharing big plates family-style, and to show that Indian restaurants, much as all other restaurants, can go high and low and everywhere in between. New York has some major talent on this beat right now, including Vikas Khanna at Junoon, but it's still an exciting one in Manhattan, where the full, rich range of Indian cuisine is underrepresented.
A rigid menu structure that encourages longer meals, when combined with shaky service and dishes, can be off-putting. To get around it, just find a seat at the chic little marble bar before it gets packed with the after-work crowd, or settle down outside on the newly opened patio next to the entrance to Le Parker Meridien hotel. Here, ideally with a cocktail in hand, you can find a taste of chaatpati à la carte.
Indian Accent is at 123 West 56th Street (Midtown); +1 (212) 842-8070 or indianaccent.com
Rating: One Star (Good)
Need to Know: Though you can order à la carte at the bar, the restaurant menu involves only multiple courses: Three courses ($75); four courses ($90); tasting menu ($110)
What to Order: Potato sphere chaat; Sweet potato shakarkhandi; Soy keema with lime leaf pao; Fried paneer with ramps; Tofu kofta with quinoa pulao