January 31, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Holy Basil: Tulsi

 Coconut and chile-detonated shrimp and crab in a crispy pappadum “sandwich.” Photo: Steven Richter
Coconut and chile-detonated shrimp and crab in a crispy pappadum “sandwich.” Photo: Steven Richter

        Sheer white curtains wrap three sides of our table in a veil of serenity at Tulsi, a luminous stage showcasing the solo turn of chef-partner Hemant Mathur. We’ve savored the Rajasthani-born Mathur’s crackajack mastery only in tandem with co-chef Suvir Saran, first at Amma and then at Devi (where he is still a partner) after discovering his tandoori gift at Tamarind. Here the “tented” tables and the glow of green – Tulsi means “divine basil” – make the space seem larger than just 55 seats.

Sheer white curtains provide a veil of serenity. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now the gorgeous pea foam green service plates have been whisked away (prematurely, as always in Indian restaurants) and I have taken a bite of the chef’s many splendored amuse, layered thrills in miniature: chickpea cake with tart tomato chutney and tangy pineapple relish. It’s a dish that says do not doubt me.

The layered complexity of the chef’s amuse launches the fireworks. Photo: Steven Richter

        I don’t remember ever encountering anything like coconut-scented green chile-spiked shrimp and crab stuffed into a pappadam. This quesadilla-looking crisp is a knockout. And all of us are instantly nattering over the divine heat of the sweet, torrid, garlicky Manchurian cauliflower – a Devi familiar. “Suvir and I developed it together,” Mathur says, to explain the borrow.

South Indian potatoes alongside Colorado lamb chops from the tandoor. Photo: Steven Richter

        Indeed, Tulsi’s menu replays several favorites from Devi. Hemant’s tandoor grilled lamb chops are clearly his own to recycle, smaller and cut from a Colorado rack, dressed as they are at Devi with mustard seed, South Indian potatoes and apple chutney. Our favorite crispy okra salad with onion and pepper heat and fresh eggplant chutney are piled alongside big, juicy, lovingly marinated tandoori prawns on a similar black plate. (Both men agree the okra salad was a shared inspiration.)

Prawns and okra salad. I’ve seen you somewhere before. Photo: Steven Richter

        Rabbit is on the menu here – braised with ginger and green chiles alongside cumin-green pea quinoa – and duck served with coconut and curry leaf sauce. Tulsi chicken gets marinated in pesto before it goes into the tandoor. From the essential vegetarian options, our tasters are not so impressed by masala-stuffed baby eggplant with coconut tamarind sauce or banana dumplings stuffed with fig and cashew in tomato gravy that beg to be ordered. But I can’t remember ever a dal as sumptuous as this one tonight. It’s just a $10 side, but a wreathe of flavors. Its cosmic stew is intoxicating.

Our host cuts open the naan sealing fragrant goat biryani. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Butter chicken,” also a side, comes with a green tomatillo sauce so addictive I’m keeping it to enhance whatever comes later. Just in case. And the goat biryani, lush and rich from its long baking with ginger, garlic, cardamom, mace and saffron, hits the table, gift of the kitchen, in a Hindi pot sealed with a pouf of naan. The breads are fine too, crab stuffed kulcha especially, arriving with mint raita we forgot to order. When we ask, “What is ‘Family Naan’?” our waiter warns, “It will cover the entire table.” The kulcha and a standard size garlic-rosemary naan are already more than our five can finish.

This familiar Manchurian cauliflower is stunningly hot and sweet. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m deeply impressed by the bartender’s worldly knack and her prom queen-pastel beauties, straight up in stemmed goblets the three of us trading around. Quite frankly, she looks like someone’s sheltered aunt or a school teacher in her modest Indian tunic, but Nirupama Srivastava, a West Coast sommelier friend of the chef, wields that shaker like a born mixologist. Her sophisticated cocktails, like my aromatic and not-at-all-sweet “Bollywood Masala Punch,” blends rum with fresh tamarind pulp, roasted five-spice blend and saffron syrup. She invented the aphrodisiac Popsicle in the smartly tart “Kamasutra,” a tequila-cranberry potion. The frozen cube is an explosion of mango puree, tamarind, lime and chili powder. My friend who ordered it offers licks to all of us and insists it has definitely heated up his ulterior motives. He orders another with dessert.

Gifted pastry chef Subhi Sahni, designs new fusion pleasures.Photo: Steven Richter

        The chef’s wife, Subhi Sahni, creator of Devi’s prized mango cheesecake and the sensuous falooda noodles with tapioca fruit, left when her daughter was born. But she is here backing up Mathur. Before we can even choose a sweet ending, our exceptionally accommodating waiter is already setting up silver. He is a keeper: smart, indulgent, not overly intimate, and earlier managed to unearth an O’Doul’s alcohol-free brew after saying that the place did not have a non-alcoholic beer. “Yet.”

The bright green glow evokes holy basil, Tulsi in Hindi. Photo: Steven Richter

        More gifts from the kitchen - rice pudding with candied pineapple, a fussily rich and ruffled pistachio cake with passion fruit butter cream, kulfi ice cream and ginger panna cotta. The custard layered with poached pear looks like nothing much but boasts a tapestry of flavor from Campari orange gelee and its candied zest.

Chef Hemant Mathur works with colorful line up of spices and sauces. Photo: Steven Richter

        Much has been written about Hemant leaving Devi to go on his own even as the promised opening was postponed again and again. Separation is rarely easy. Or simple. Saran came by Tulsi on Tuesday and suggested the lights should be more “golden.” He notes that Hemant remains an owner of Devi – where together they won a Michelin star in 2007 and 2008. He counts Hemant who continues working in Devi’s kitchen three days a week, as his co-executive chef for now. Mathur tells me he will be there to train the new chef who was to arrive this week from India. “He’s become a vegetarian now,” Saran observes. “And I who was a vegetarian am eating meat.” It sounds to me like the drawn out separation is still in its trial stage.

         211 East 46th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. 212 888 0820. Lunch $20 Chaat and Choose, $30 prix fixe or a la carte, noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Bar opens at 5 pm.