Apps Only

Seeking out the best bites for under $15 a head.

Apps Only: Tabla

Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Tabla's chutney sampler and garlic tandoori flatbread. [Photos: Ben Fishner]

Tabla is very near and dear to my heart; it used to be the Fishner family's favorite restaurant, the go-to for celebrations. This was when the restaurant was broken up into two restaurants: the fine dining oriented Tabla upstairs, and the more casual Bread Bar downstairs, with a menu of small plates built for sharing.

Still, I never got around to visiting Tabla for Apps Only, partly because when I started writing the column, Bread Bar was closed and its menu merged with Tabla's. This disappointing bit of brand synergy scared me off, and admittedly I never visited the bar room at Tabla to see how the new menu looked. Now that Tabla has announced it will close its doors at the end of December, I figured I had to visit—if only for old time's sake. I arrived expecting to find a somber staff and even more tired food, but as it turns out, the menu at Tabla, while not as much fun as the former Bread Bar, is still bursting with energy. Twelve years on, and Tabla's food still feels unique and original.

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File this gratis snack sampler under "pleasant surprises."

Even before we could order our dinner, a plate of snacks arrived at our table: tandoori spiced popcorn, crispy fried chickpeas, and spicy pickled carrots were perfect munching while we waited for our food.

Naan and chutney seemed like as good a place as any to start. We ordered a Garlic Tandoori Bread ($4) and a selection of three chutneys ($7). The kitchen selected for us Lemon and Tamarind-Jaggery Chutney and a creamy Peanut-Chipotle Raita. The lemon chutney was too sweet and had a somewhat artificial-tasting flavor to it, while the tamarind-jaggery was tasty, with the tart tamarind tempered by the sweet jaggery and a kick of anise. But the nutty, creamy peanut-chipotle raita was by far the most exciting and delicious of the three. The bread, a naan-style flatbread generously coated in garlic-infused butter, made a fine vehicle for the chutneys, although the garlic flavor was not too pronounced.

We also tried the Bhoondi Raita ($7) from the sides menu, a more straightforward raita with spiced yogurt, cucumber, cilantro, and "chickpea dumplings." I put that in quotes because these were not like any dumplings I've ever seen. Rather, they were pellet-sized crispy fried balls of chickpea batter which somehow stayed crisp in the raita. Very good.

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Onion rings with housemade ketchup.

Next, I couldn't resist a classic holdover from the Bread Bar menu: Onion Rings with "Boodie's" Ketchup ($12), sweet onions coated in a papadum-like spiced batter and served with homemade ketchup. Finally we shared the Hudson Valley Duck Samosa ($14), a strange take on the Indian restaurant classic. This samosa was baked and breadier than its deep-fried cousin, and while the tender duck meat was delicious, fourteen bucks seemed a bit steep for this plate.

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Hudson Valley duck samosa. [Photos: Ben Fishner]

Tabla's not cheap--the two of us spent $44 before tax and tip, way over our $15/person target price--but the food there speaks for itself. It's at once familiar and exotic, and there's really no other restaurant like it in the city. Chef Floyd Cardoz has talked about reopening Tabla in a smaller space down the line, and I'm sure that this isn't going to be the last we see of him. It will be a shame to see Tabla go at the end of this year, but it'd be even more of a shame not to visit it one last time. Just make sure you bring a few friends, because you're going to want to try everything on the menu.

Tabla

11 Madison Avenue (at 25th Street), New York NY 10010 (map)
212-889-0667
tablany.com

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