NEW YORK – Diners who take stock of the menu at a new Indian restaurant in the theater district in Manhattan, Saar Indian Bistro, helmed by the Michelin star chef, Hemant Mathur, and his wife, acclaimed pastry chef, Surbhi Sahni, will stumble upon a smattering of Kerala staple favorites among the eclectic fare: Avial, Cochin Black Pepper Chicken, and the tongue twister of a name for a vegetable concoction – as hard to pronounce as the Malayalam word for rain – Vazzaka Thoran and Sambhar.
Diners – especially those acquainted with Kerala dishes – who do a quick assumption that the word ‘Saar’, thus, is a colloquial play on the word ‘sir’ – would, of course, have taken a good guess. But it’s not the case.
‘Saar’ means the “essence of something”; and the 64-seat restaurant, plastered with vintage-looking wallpaper and a swanky-looking bar, is inspired by Mathur’s hometown of Jaipur, in Rajasthan, offering an interesting mix of dishes from all over India, though.
Mathur has over the years in New York City earned a well-deserved reputation for being one of the top tandoor chefs in the US. His name has been associated with some of the best Indian restaurants that have surfaced in the city, some of which have shut down over the years, even as new ones mushroomed.
Gourmands, like this writer, will have fond memories of the upscale Devi and Tulsi, both of which earned a Michelin star under the stewardship of Mathur. He was recognized as the Indian first chef to be bestowed the honor in the US, when Devi was accorded the Michelin star in 2007, after its inception in 2004. Tulsi opened in 2010. Both restaurants shut down shop, but the succulent lamb chops they served up came to be known as Mathur’s signature dish.
Mathur began his career in the Big Apple in 2000, when he opened the hugely popular Tamarind restaurant, before moving on to Diwan Grill in 2002, and then, Amma, in 2003. In 2015, Mathur took on the astonishing task of becoming the Executive Chef and co-owner of six Indian restaurants in New York City (three of which are in close proximity to each other in the Curry Hill area, on Lexington Avenue) – Chola, Kokum, Chote Nawab, Dhaba, Malai Marke and Haldi. He started his career in India, before working in Germany and Mexico as well.
Now comes Saar Indian Bistro, located between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, with its only upscale Indian competitor in the area being Utsav, which was inaugurated in 2000 by Emiko Kothari who owns and runs a chain of 19 Indian restaurants in Tokyo. The New York restaurant is managed by her granddaughter Nandita Khanna.
Though Saar Indian Bistro opened initially only for dinner, it’s expanded to serve lunch too, including a pre-theater tasting course. The lunch fare is limited though, with some of the heavy hitters, like Tandoori Colorado Lamb Chops, and the Kashmiri Kabargah – milk poached crispy New Zealand lamb ribs with onion, and mushroom pilaf on the side, served up only at dinner time. Another lamb dish is the Persian-influenced Salli Botti, a Parsi sweet and sour lamb stew with garlic naan.
The variety is impressive at Saari Indian Bistro.
There is Macher and Potol Bhaja from Bengal – Halibut, with mustard cauliflower and potato sauce, served with plain rice and crispy parval. There are multiple varieties of chaat, and fried okra, for vegans to savor, and biriyani fans can choose from three varieties: chicken, goat and jackfruit.
We had a lunch tasting menu, and went for the Lamb Kebabs and Prawn Sambharo for starters.
The kebabs were excellently done, tender, almost melting in the mouth, as one sunk in. The equally tasty prawns, served with a Gujarati-style cooked salad of carrots, cabbage, cumin and mustard seed, immediately brought back memories of food cooked by my mother, in Delhi, especially the way she makes cabbage, fried with myriad spices. The slivers of sweet carrot tempered the spices on the prawns and the cabbage, to make it a superb, memorable dish.
For second course, we ordered the Stuffed Paneer Lababdar, and the Lemon and Saffron Seabass.
The Paneer Lababdar, with delicious scallion and red onion stuffed inside folds of big, juicy, delectable paneer pieces, was doused with fenugreek tomato sauce, with zafrani pilaf and carrot slaw on the side. The way my wife and I lunged for the last paneer piece on the plate should give an indication of what we think of the savory dish. (Side note: I won).
The seabass was tender enough, but lacked the creativity of the other dishes we tried out. It came with a small, almost miniscule, mound of peas upma, and basil garlic sauce, but lacked some zesty sauces and spices to suffuse it, and make it more palatable for Indian palates.
The dessert was fantastic though, and more than made up for the disappointment of the seabass.
The Kaju Kulfi had ran out, so we had to do only with the Fig Firni – a rice custard with orange and garam masala poached figs. It left us craving for more. We wished we had savored it more like a child, who having got some precious candy he adores, eats it over the course of a few days, devouring it slowly.
We promised to head back for some more fig firni soon.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)