My Dinner at Devi Devi is easy to miss. I walk down that block often, and I had not noticed it until the other night when someone opened the door, letting the scent of cardamom, chiles, cumin, and cinnamon float out onto the dark cold sidewalk like a warm ray of lost sunlight. It stopped me in my tracks. I peered inside and spied a mesmerizing, sari-clothed room—an Indian temple as restaurant. I had discovered Devi.
Devi (pronounced Davey, as in Crocket) is a partnership between co-chefs Suvir Saran (co-author of Indian Home Cooking, recently released by Clarkson Potter) and Hemant Mathur, a tandor master who most recently worked with Suvir at Amma. They have created a restaurant with a Spice Market feel, though not on as grand a scale of course. There are bright jewel-colored silks hanging on the walls, ancient carved wood doors, a Scarlet O'Hara worthy staircase—all effecting a sultry Indian vibe. As good New Yorkers, we saddled up to the bar before dinner for a cocktail to take the edge off the day.
Julia Martin, the bartender who created the impressive list of spiced libations, should be watched. She is courageous and talented. Her list includes the Ambika—Grey Goose L'Orange, mango and blood orange puree served up and garnished with an orange cognac soaked mango slice ($12), the Maharani—a classic Belvedere martini with a splash of saffron infusion and a twist of orange ($14), and Autumn's Torch—Hennessey V.S. Cognac, La Lieutenance Liqueur d'Orange, Lebanese almond syrup, fresh lemon juice, splashed with Syrah, served on the rocks, garnished with cognac soaked cherries ($13). But be warned. These may look like girly drinks, but they pack a wallop of booze into your system. Sip slowly. After nibbling on some caramel popcorn and spice-roasted nuts (love a bar with good snacks) and sipping our drinks way too fast, we moved to our table to begin our Indian Feast.
The hook at Devi is Indian home cooking, dressed up for a New York audience, and the formula works quite well. The food is presented on stunning jewel-toned ceramic platters and bowls and so it feels contemporary, but it tastes like it came from somebody's Indian grandmother's kitchen. (That is meant as a strong compliment.) But the menu is quite large, and it is hard to choose what to eat because it all sounds (and smells) really good. If possible, I recommend bringing a group of friends with you to dinner. It can be daunting to be just two, because you wont be able to try everything you want to, and you will inevitably get food envy from the wonders served to tables next to you. We started our feast with the mung bean chaat on roasted papadam ($9). This dish from Northern Indian was presented like little Napoleons constructed from mini papadams (lentil crackers) layered with a chaat masala made from sprouted mung beans tossed with mint, tamarind, cilantro, tomatoes, and red onions. Its vibrant and puckery flavors were exotic and smashing. Suvir's Manchurian Cauliflower ($9)—an Indo-Chinese dish—was a guilty pleasure on the level of buffalo wings drenched in Frank's Hot sauce. A mound of crisp, fried florets of cauliflower arrived drenched in a zippy, sticky, red chile and garlic glaze made with—gasp—ketchup! (YUMMY!) We also ordered the Saag Paneer ($9)—a divine puddle of spinach cooked down to rich condiment kicked up with onions and tomatoes, steeped with Fenugreek leaves, and studded with little thimbles of Paneer (a tangy Indian cheese). While the Saag Paneer was terrific, the Idly Upma ($8), pyramid shaped rice and bean cakes with chutney—were not. They were dry, tough and unpleasant to eat.
But the Idly were soon forgotten when the lamb chops arrived. These juicy gams have changed my opinion of lambs' little chops forever. Suvir marinates free-range, grass-fed Jamison Farm's chops in a garlic-ginger yogurt sauce that breaks down all of the tough muscle fibers, making the meat startlingly tender. It is almost as if all the sinuous lines have been erased from the meat—like wrinkles magically rubbed out with Botox—making the chops amazingly smooth in texture. (I am now marinating every bit of meat in some sort of yogurt before grilling. In fact, I am going to marinate myself in some yogurt too. Be right back.)
I could have eaten the lamb chops alone, with nothing more than a napkin to dap the drool from the corners of my mouth, but Suvir serves them with a Southern Indian dish of curry leaf and mustard seed coated potatoes and a Kashmiri pear chutney that turns out to be a smart combination of acid, sweet and heat that complements the chops, rather than overpowering them.
We also went in for a plate of the crispy tangy okra—Kararee Bhindi ($14). We had heard about this dish, and the hype was not for naught. The frizzled shards of okra are lightly seasoned and dusted with chickpea flour (besan) and then deep-fried so they are crunchy and greaseless. The mile high pile of fried okra was like an Indian version of Durkee Potato Sticks (remember those? They came in a can?). Heather and I agreed that fried okra with tomato chutney should by all means replace chips and salsa as the official Super Bowl nosh.
The final blow to our waistlines came in the form of a massive and magnificent bowl of Kathal (Jackfruit) Biryaani ($16)— silky and aromatic basmati rice expertly cooked and layered with chunks of curried jackfruit, cauliflower and potatoes, then baked, and set in a pool of cool yogurt. We ate small forkfuls slowly, savoring each mouthful, while praying for more room to open up in our tummies. But as hard as we tried, those tummies were at No Vacancy.
As I hobbled out of Devi, slightly crippled by excess consumption, I was overcome by my stellar ability to eat, but was even more taken with the humble and amazing talent in the kitchen. Devi may be easy to miss, but how often do we close our eyes to the delicious goodness that is right in front of us?