Hot is about the least alluring adjective for a restaurant these days, and not because it’s 160 degrees outside. I’m happy to wait till the digitally driven hordes have moved on before trying anything new. Or so I thought until I started seeing excited Tweets pop up in my stream about @paowallanyc, even from other chefs. Floyd Cardoz in a bread-centric return engagement seemed worth jumping through a few hoops to experience. So I reserved nearly a week ahead, and the joint was packed, in SoHo, at 7 o’clock, on a Tuesday. Between the service and the cooking/wine, it was easy to see why. When the crab ranks No. 4 out of six dishes, you know the kitchen is in transformative hands. As my consort, just back from Torino/Santa Fe/Tuscany, confessed: “When you said Indian, I was not looking forward to it. This is not what I was expecting.”
So what was No. 1? Easily the shisito pakoras, the peppers halved lengthwise, coated with chickpea flour and fried, then paired with peanut and red onion “salsa.” The textures and the flavors were equally lively. Grilled stuffed calamari was almost as sensational, tender but with deep char and a fabulous if mysterious filling (mushrooms? I feel like that idiot writer at the Beard House who once tucked into shiitakes and asked: “What is this? Baloney?”) A chat with black chickpeas and edamame was also great, and maybe even better kittybagged the next day. The tingmo turned out to be even more spectacular than the waitress described it, a steamed bread wrapped around a very hot chile paste, while the cheese kulcha Dan Kluger had raved about was like an Indian quesadilla but with seriously good bread as the “tortilla,” and cumin seeds to deliver haunting flavor. As for the crab, the seafood itself was outstanding and the seasonings perfectly calibrated. Modern Indian is an understatement.
And then there was the wine: A fascinating Sula sauvignon blanc, one we had had in Bangalore years ago, was $40, less than you’ll pay for a mediocre California or even more mediocre Italian white these days. Extra points for perfection in pouring. WIGB? Not right away if only because Bob is now so psyched for hot and new if they can deliver on this level. But we would both go back hungry and not jet-lagged because the big plates sound mighty alluring.
You can also file the Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Terminal under hot, but I was glad we made an exception for it, too, on a Saturday when Bob was between workshop gigs and I wanted him to see what I’d only reported on. The best pastrami I have ever had came not from a deli or even a BBQ pro but was tucked inside a slab of Danish bread, along with a thick mayonnaisey sauce and crunchy shallots for contrast. Bob was just as thrilled with his lamb sandwich, even though he’s not usually either a sandwich or a creamy kind of guy. The prices seemed high until I took half my lunch home for dinner. WIGB? I’m planning to soon with a friend who married into a Danish family, just so we can check out all the gorgeous blondes wandering from food stall to food stall.