Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dining with Real Estate Moguls: New American / Indian Cuisine at Eletarria

We humans don’t like our food to surprise us. Deciding to put something in your mouth is a big commitment, and we want to know just what we’re getting ourselves into.

This idea was recently supported by scientists in the Netherlands. They told research subjects that they were about to feed them one type of food, and then surprised them with another. The subjects reported feelings of fear, anger, and even depression (the Netherlanders, apparently, are a fragile people).

But an evening at Elettaria in Greenwich Village this past weekend proved that culinary surprises don’t have to be sour. The evening was full of the unexpected:

No Robo Waiter

Elettaria had been recommended to us by one of my dad’s old fraternity brothers - currently a commercial real estate mogul in New York. We were interested to see what type of restaurant satisfies a mogul’s appetite for excess. I pictured ornate mosaic marble floors, Versace tableware, and baby grand pianos. Maybe my own cyborg waiter named Jose.

Instead, Elettaria was furtively located behind a red painted door among a jumble of knickknack shops and seedy shoe stores. The interior was more grunge than grandiose, with a big bar towards the entrance, a mysterious staircase that ended abruptly at the ceiling, and a softly glowing, lounge-style eating area. The space used to be a nightclub, and the kitchen is reputedly located at the same spot where Jimi Hendrix played his guitar.

And the prices were actually reasonable. Was this the mogul's favorite place before or after the economy crashed?

Bombay Meets the Bible Belt

Elettaria describes its cuisine as New American, but most of their dishes use at least one element taken from Indian cooking. For example, the pork ribs are dressed with garam massala and drizzled with pureed lychee, and they sprinkle cardamom on the duck. Makes sense, then, that chef/co-owner Akhtar Nawab (below) is of Indian descent.

The surprise came as we were waiting for our table, when the hostess overheard me talking about my childhood and chimed in that Nawab also grew up southern, in Louisville. Nawab would probably be just as surprised to hear about me, the Jew from Nashville. In any case, I wonder how much he cherishes his dixieland heritage, considering that his menu is free of southern accents. I recently read an interview in which Nawab said that, when he was a kid, his mom cooked only Indian. For Thanksgiving, they made Tandoori-style Cornish game hens.

But to be fair, he does have a drink at the bar called “Kentucky Firing Squad.”

The Foodie Gives the M.D. an Anatomy Lesson

Compared to the entrées, the non-trées/appetizers looked more adventurous to me. I ordered sea urchin and curried rabbit, but the non-trée that sparked the most interest at our table was my sweetbreads. By interest, I don’t mean that anyone was actually willing to try it. I mean morbid fascination that I would eat something as weird as that.

The question soon came up: what exactly are sweetbreads? Mark and I sang out a duet that sounded something like “brart,” – he said brain, and I said heart.

Cue that whistle-y music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The foodie and the doctor were about to go pistols at 40 paces over who knew more about anatomy (of a cow, admittedly). His credentials: med school, residency, and over twenty years of medical practice. Mine: I hang out at butcher shops. The rest of the table sized us up and put their money on the doctor.

Well, foodies, put those hands together, because I took it home. Instead of settling the dispute with a gunfight, we asked Mark’s wife, Wendy, to research the question on her blackberry. Neither of us was exactly right, but I was closer. There are two kinds of sweetbreads: stomach sweetbreads – also known as heart sweetbreads – which are an animal’s pancreas, and neck sweetbreads, an animal’s thymus gland. The heart sweetbreads are favored for their delicate flavor and texture.

Everyone was impressed by my sort of accurate answer. I felt smart for about ten seconds before receiving a flood of questions about every other unfamiliar term on the menu. I was shrugging like Atlas. Tatin? Kalonji? Didn’t see any of those at the butcher shop.

No Bone to Pick

The menu had described the sweetbreads (picture, below) dish as “risotto, bone marrow, and szechuan pepper.” I’m new to bone marrow and still in my honeymoon phase, so you can imagine how excited I was to tickle the ivories with an Indian twist.

But the dish arrived bare bones – just the risotto, sweetbreads, and pepper. I realized that this was a Milanese risotto. To make it, a chef scoops out the marrow and chucks the bone. He adds the marrow to butter and then uses this mixture to coat the rice before covering with wine and saffron. I’ve had this kind of risotto with osso bucco and enjoy it, but I’d been looking forward to scooping the marrow from the bone and savoring its oozy fattiness straight-up.

I was depressed like a research subject in the Netherlands. But the surprise turned sweet when I noticed how well the sweetbreads paired with the risotto. In one sense, it was enjoyable because of the flavor contrast: the tang of the risotto was a good complement to the unctuous sweetbreads. What’s more, the sweetbreads actually reminded me a lot of bone marrow – both are rich and creamy, reminiscent of butter. So I drew a parallel between this dish and osso bucco, which, afterall, is bone marrow with Milanese risotto. Did these very similar Italian classics develop independently, or did one inspire the other?

Authentically Ignoring Indian Food

Mark, the doctor, is from Nashville, where opportunities for authentic Indian food are few and far between, if not fewer. We misunderstood Elettaria to be an Indian place, and so on the way to the restaurant we got Mark’s hopes up. After he read the American-influenced menu, he looked upset, like he’d just lost an anatomy quiz to a foodie.

He found some solace that there was at least one authentic Indian dish on the menu: saag paneer, which he ordered. The paneer was spinach, and the saag was sheep’s milk ricotta.

But Mark was in for another surprise. Initially resentful of Wendy's non-Indian halibut with Israeli couscous and squid ink, by the end of the meal his napkin was black and he was leaning away from the saag, hovering over his wife’s plate.

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