The herb tulsi has been revered in India for over 5,000 years as a healer of the body, mind, and spirit. In more recent times, its many beneficial results, among them improved digestion and increased antioxidants, have received the stamp of scientific proof. And the name, translated into English as “holy basil,” is a perfect melding of the sacred and the fragrant. All of which combine to provide context and connotation for the year-old midtown, Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant created by lauded Indian chef Hemant Mathur.
Our dinner at Tulsi was to be our first serious exposure to Indian food. We also had the sense that it would be part of a shared karma that began about a year ago in Masada, the ancient palace-fortress complex in Israel, when, descending from the heights in a cable car, we struck up a conversation with a man from Mumbai. Back on terra firma, we exchanged business cards but afterward, aside from a few e-mails back and forth, had little contact until a couple of weeks after Christmas, when he called. He was in New York, he said, would we like to get together?
During a subsequent dinner (at a Spanish restaurant, actually), he invited us to visit him in India next December and promised to organize a trip to various parts of his native land. Coincidentally, the taxis we took to and from the Spanish restaurant were driven by Indian men, a fact our erstwhile companion seemed to delight in. So India was in the forefront of our minds when several days later, a friend invited us to sample classic Indian cuisine at Tulsi.
A whiff of something unidentifiable but fragrant and, at the same time, spicy, greeted us as we stepped out of the January night into a bright and deep dining space. Before us was an aisle of pedestal tables covered in crisp white cloths, and chairs upholstered in white fabric and framed in a dark wood. Small dining alcoves lined both sides of the room, each with a single table before a banquette. Defined by diaphanous white curtains, either drawn across a ceiling pole or tied back, they evoked a scene out of the Raj.
Seated at a table at the end of the center aisle, we decided to forego wine or mixed drinks in favor of a beer named 1947 for the year of India’s independence, a suitable choice, we thought and did not regret, as it proved a refreshing complement to the array of dishes, one following the other, that made parade-like appearances. Our servers were all welcoming, amiable, and eager to explain. We even got a little tour of the kitchen and watched in amazement as a lump of kneaded dough was thrown into a tandoor. Immediately it adhered to the side of the deep, barrel-shaped clay oven, transforming, in short order, into a naan, the crisp Indian flatbread that, flavored with rosemary and garlic, could easily become addictive. As could tandoor-grilled prawns with eggplant chutney, and chicken, marinated in basil, with ginger and sweet tomato chutney.
We developed a relish for chutneys this evening after we sampled a variety of these lively condiments, based on fruits like apple and pear as well as a range of vegetables in novel preparations and combinations from the sweet and sour cauliflower, to the tandoor-roasted pesto Portobello mushroom, to the hot (temperature as well as spice-wise) tomato soup, to the many lentil dishes (lentil dumplings being particularly delicious), and the eggplant. All are inscribed in taste bud memory.
Luscious little crab cakes arrived, with red chiles and spices unidentifiable to novices like us. With all these dishes being passed around, it came as a surprise when the lamb chops arrived, a crown of them on a large platter. Grilled in the tandoor after being marinated in yogurt, mace and cardamom, they proved the most dramatic, delicious, and memorable presentation of the night.
Until our dinner at Tulsi, our knowledge of Indian food was largely limited to curries. This evening allowed us a sense of the grand variety of one of the world’s great cuisines. It was but lesson one in an education we plan to continue. There is much to learn, equally as much to enjoy.
211 East 46th Street
New York, N.Y. 10017
Photographs by Melissa Horn