This restaurant is closed!
33 W 8th St (Macdougal St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 677-3833
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Cuisine: New American
2nd Cuisine: Indian
Area: Greenwich Village
New York is one of those cities where name-dropping is practically an Olympic sport. And it’s particularly acute in the food world, where a round of name-dropping might go something like this: “Daniel’s new place is just fabulous, don’t you think? Have you tried Sylvain’s charcuterie? To die for, darling. And Marcus is doing such extraordinary food at Merkato. Do you think April is going to open John Dory soon? I can’t wait. Have you been able to get one of those online reservations to Dave’s new place? It’s impossible but we must go!”
It’s fairly hilarious the way we all behave about chefs. From the fervor around Ko’s online reservation system you’d think David Chang was saving lives in Darfur with every dinner served. (Dining for Darfur is this May, so that may be possible in the future.) But it is what it is. They’re celebrities and we’re their minions. And I’m okay with that. I am part of the machine that makes them who they are, after all. And believe me, people have been celebrated for a lot less (and a lot worse). In any case, with this review, I’m here to tell you there’s gonna be another name being dropped in foodie circles in the coming weeks and months. It’s the name of someone who’s been around for over a decade at Gramercy Tavern, Craftbar, and most recently at EU. But it’s only now, at a beautiful new stage called Elettaria, that he—Akhtar Nawab—has truly arrived. So get ready to hear his name a lot more often. To find out why, a visit to his new restaurant is in order.
You’ll find it located on a newly revived stretch of 8th Street in between a few stalwart shoe stores and some storefronts for rent. Its glass façade is like a fishbowl, allowing passersby to get a glimpse of the glamorous vintage living room-styled lounge up front by the bar furnished with antique arm chairs and side tables.
Beyond the bar, the room is marked by exposed brick walls hung with heavy drapes, a low ceiling constructed from salvaged wood beams, and little antique details like half-doors, sconces, oil paintings, and bone china vases filled with fresh flowers. A faux staircase toward the front leads to nowhere (but gives the room an illusion of height), and a rear dining room is anchored by oversized semi-circular booths and a long communal table that leads down to an open kitchen washed in grassy green backsplash tiles. Elettaria was designed by Jason Volenec who also did Allen and Delancey, and the similarities between the spaces are apparent. The room feels a little like a theatrical set for a period piece starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley.
Nawab’s business partner and wine director in Elettaria is Noel Cruz, whom he met almost a decade ago when Cruz was a bartender at Craftbar. After working with Don Pintabona most recently at Dani, he got together with Nawab who’d hatched the idea for Elettaria, a restaurant that would channel a more personal story than ones told before. The menu would reach into Nawab’s Indian heritage and open the lid on a chest of ingredients like ginger, cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon. As for the wines, Cruz created a list that’s succinct but compelling, with local and global choices at reasonable price points that show off-beat character and allow you to have fun. For instance, rather than a more typical Reisling from Finger Lakes’ Dr. Konstantine Frank, Cruz offers a variety called Rkatsiteli ($46), similar in style but different enough that it made me take note and jot it down for future drinking, especially for summer.
To create the cocktails, Cruz decided to bring in the experts, bar chefs Lynette Marrero, of Drinks at 6 and Freeman’s, who started out way back at Punch and Judy’s, and Brian Miller, of Death & Co., who got his start the same place I did, at Miracle Grill. Marrero and Miller are masters of their craft and the cocktails ($11) they’ve created are spectacular, served in delicate stemware that calls to mind swirls of sexy cigarette smoke and the roaring twenties. As for a favorite, it’s hard to say, but if you like bourbon, I’d recommend that you try the 8th Wonder—a tall beer glass filled with Kold Draft ice cubes with a mix of cardamom and chai-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, sweet vermouth, lemon, simple syrup, and a splash of club soda, and if you like tequila, I’d go with the Rita Hayworth, a mix of house-infused pineapple and sage Herradura Silver Tequila shaken with fresh lime juice and honey. And if you really need to take the edge off quick, try the Navy Grog, a rum cocktail from 1941 that combines El Dorado 12yr, Goslings, and Cruzan Rums, with fresh lime and grapefruit juices, honey, and a splash of soda. When Debbie ordered it I immediately had drink envy. My Rita Hayworth was great, but her Grog was twice the size. She did let me share though, and with it, the post-dinner hangover. (I’d try to limit your cocktail consumption to two if you’re also going to drink a bottle of wine with dinner.) What’s also special about this bar is that it allows for an evening to be spent safely in the cozy confines of Elettaria. Start at the bar, move to the rear dining room for dinner, and then come back up front for more.
Speaking of dinner, yes, let’s discuss.
It begins with warm buttered naan sprinkled with just a bit of salt, which, if you’re anything like me, you’ll tear through in no time. Have no fear, replenishments are happily served. And then you’ll get to the menu, which you’ll read and think (a) I’ve never read a menu like this before, and (b) how am I going to decide what to have. You’ll manage to make some tough choices and then you’ll have dinner and think, Holy Cardamom, this is fantastic.
The food is fantastic for one main reason—Akhtar. Here’s a guy who gets it. I’ve always felt this way about his cooking. He has a real thoughtfulness and understanding of what makes a dish work. This comes across in several ways. First, with seasoning. You’ll rarely find a plate here that’s not spot-on and pitch perfect. You won’t be reaching for salt or pepper, you’ll just be devouring.
Take the cured kampachi with hearts of palm, pickled trompettes (mushrooms), papaya and chile ($11) for instance. There’s the silken fish, a cross between sashimi and carpaccio, dressed up with the zippy mushrooms, the sweetness from papaya, and the heat from chile, and then across the top, just a pinch of coarse sea salt that wakes up every note of seasoning in the dish. It’s marvelous. Ditto a luscious filet of seared wild striped bass ($22) that sits on top of diced sweet and sour roasted beets and a fluffy bed of basmati rice spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cumin that’s garnished with chervil and cilantro. It’s a dish that took me to my Persian roots with that rice, and had me marveling at how he came up with the idea of those beets. It’s an element some others might leave off the plate but it’s the glue that brings the flavors of the fish and the rice all together.
Akhtar also has a thing for Meyer lemons, which is the magic that really makes his food pop. Take a dish of plump caramelized Dayboat scallops served on braised oxtail and celery root puree ($14). It’s sort of a routine dish, you’d think, but add those Meyer lemon supremes and it’s like sunshine burning through a dense fog. You may find the lemons in sweetbreads, in quail, in any number of plates that need a note of bright tart acidity. Feel free to try this Meyer lemon trick at home. You’ll be surprised at the results.
Bringing flavors into focus with the right seasoning is one thing, but there’s another thing that Akhtar’s got going for him and that’s texture. He understands that people need variety: all soft and mushy, and you’re bored, all crunchy and you’re irritated. You need both. And both is what you’ll get with the crab meat resala ($14), a riff on a dish traditionally made from shrimp with turmeric, cardamom, onions and yogurt. Here it’s switched up a bit. What you’ll get is an oblong bowl filled with what seems to be several pounds of flawlessly picked over super-sweet crab, so delicate it’s almost fragile, served in a turmeric-onion beurre fondue. The crab is topped with what may look like a shower of croutons but they’re not—they’re actually crispy fried miniature gnocchi a la Parisienne (which should be served as a bar snack.) These are made from choux dough, not potatoes, so they’re like little pillows of cream inside. To finish the plate, he adds a confetti toss of basil seeds and fried herbs. There’s the softness of the crab, the crispness from the gnocchi, and then joy all around.
Finally, there’s a sense of adventure to Akhtar’s cooking that really makes eating a lot of fun. So, for instance, instead of fried chicken you’ll find crunchy battered quail, so tender and juicy you’ll wonder if it really is quail, or some small chicken masquerading as a quail. But the richness of the meat gives it away. It’s quail. The wings are served with a tamarind molasses, nuggets of bacon and a fried quail egg ($14). Sweetbreads, a signature dish at Craftbar, return here, fat and pan-fried with braised romaine, pineapple, and pink peppercorns ($11). Roasted chicken is a wild ride thanks to a surprising side of sweet and sour tomato ravioli with smoked sunchokes ($23). Have you ever? No, but you will. Wild Boar is reborn as a carnivore’s contender, served roasted and sliced and served over a bed of vermicelli noodle salad scented with orange and cumin and tossed with braised boar shoulder meat. It’s a noodle salad you’d want to eat for lunch or that you’d hope to find somewhere for takeout.
While certainly not the most innovative part of the menu, Akhtar’s also having some fun updating more traditional Indian dishes. “Saag paneer” is turned into a sort of Indian “gravy” for ricotta gnocchi ($18), steamed rice cakes are served over a vibrant dal made from lentils stewed with tomato, ginger and garlic confit, and a sausage-sized skewered lamb sausage, a mix of chiles, cumin, cinnamon and coriander, work magic with a cool soothing yogurt and mint raita.
On occasion as a special he does his version of Lugaw, a Filipino dish that’s a nod to Cruz’s heritage. If you’ve had congee, it’s similar, but Lugaw is way more flavorful and interesting, cooked with ginger oil and a broth made from pork tendons that’s topped with slices of wild hamachi and a fried quail egg. Yum. And if he’s serving anything with the fried coconut basmati rice, order it. Last week there was a fluke special with that coconut fried rice and a duck egg. You might want to call ahead and plan dinner accordingly. Desserts are worth the slight extra weight they’ll put on you. The Rasmali ($7) is a fresh cheese custard that gets soaked in a pond of citrus and cardamom cream. It’s like cheesecake on crack. Indian donuts, or Gulab Jamun, are fried little lumps scented with rose water that are all together too easy to eat. They were gone before they stood a chance.
Food aside, I think you’ll enjoy the service at Elettaria as well, as it is thoughtful and attentive. The only hiccup is that some folks have gotten caught in the quagmire of second or third seatings. The thing is no one ever feels like getting up and leaving once they’re sitting down. The tables are cozy and comfortable and the food and the drinks are great, so why leave? Well, because other people have reserved the table your lingering at. It’s hard to kick people out and yet, there’s gotta be a way to move people along. (In my day we’d buy them a drink at the bar, but I don’t know if that’s done anymore.) In any case, this has been an issue at the restaurant, and it’s one that will hopefully get smoothed out soon. I guess if your worst problem is sitting at that bar and drinking cocktails like the Kentucky Firing Squad (Elijah Craig 12yr, lemon, sweet vermouth, and soda), or the Ginger Rogers (Gosling’s Dark Rum, Hine H Cognac, lemon, ginger, and Peychaud Bitters), you’re really not in bad shape. And you can always strike up a conversation with someone and drop a name or two.
Review By: Andrea Strong