Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Orgy of Curries and Suvir Saran


Lately I've been spending lots of time at The Setai. As far as hangouts go, it's pretty nice. One week I stopped in to drink lots of champagne and listen to jazz in their temple-like courtyard. Last Wednesday I was there to feast on delicacies from the Far East.
The occasion: a new mid-week dinner party with a 4-course Indian menu. The guest host for the night: Suvir Saran, famous cookbook author, chef and owner of New York's Devi, a well-respected Indian spot.

Saran isn't a huge fan of Florida but he's a huge fan of Setai chef Jonathan Wright (and Lee Schrager who has invited him to participate in past Sobe Wine and Food Fests). And he was a gracious host, making the rounds from table to table, taking time to chat with diners (a potpourri of old friends and chef groupies). Little did I realize that before the night would be over I'd fall into both camps.
He's a charming guy, sporting chef's whites and plaid Paul Smith pants. "The cuffs are too narrow - like Indian pants." I found him inspiring, too. He's doing what he loves - writing and lecturing about the food of his childhood. The food he finds endlessly fascinating. The intersection of history, culture and appetites that forms the backbone of culinary traditions.
He sipped watermelon juice spiked with ginger. We talked about my Persian background. "India and Persia were once the center of the world. Everything beautiful in life comes from Persia - not just food and carpets. Everything." It made me want to visit Iran.
In this lifetime, inshalla.
As we spoke the table became crowded with little brass pots of stews - grouper swimming in broth of garam masala, curry leaves and tumeric. Pork cooked with garlic, mustard seeds and dried chilis. Fresh-baked Naan bread made four feet away in the Setai's open kitchen. We chatted in between bites of Tandori lamb dipped in pear chutney, mussels steamed in a fragrant mix of tamarind, tomatoes and black peppercorn. Sea bass marinated in coconut, cumin and lime.


We talked about his farm in upstate New York where he's got chickens, goats, sheep. His hens are lazy "They'll lay an egg every five or six days. Most lay eggs every day." And he sells the eggs to local chefs in the area, in keeping with his farm-to-table philosophy.
He reflected on the origin of curry dishes. "What we Indians refer to as curry is very different from what Americans think of as curry. It's definitely not that vile powder that comes in a jar." And do not get him started on the murky brown gravy that is the abomination known as Japanese curry. 
"To Indians curry is a sauce. It can be the tomato sauce you put on noodles. It's not necessarily this spicy, gloppy stuff they serve in most Indian restaurants." The stews on this table were elegant, balanced, fiery. Not cut with clarified butter like most Indian dishes I've tried. I cooled the fire in between bites with scoops of a minty yogurt raita. Saran commented that most Indian households include yogurt with every meal, "and you have a small dish of it by each plate that you dip into throughout the meal so you balance all the PH levels in your stomach. That's why Indians have no need for Pepto Bismol."
By the end of the night I had tasted twelve dishes and each one was a magical carpet ride through the souks of Arabia, the crowded alleyways of Mumbai and the vast waters of Indus River. At the end we tempered everything with pastry chef Noah French's banana ice cream and fritters, fennel and anise seed pancakes and Saran's famous rice pudding cooked with almonds, cardamom and saffron.

At the end of the night he signed my menu: "May Persia come alive for you with each meal you eat." It wasn't The Setai but a very creative place I visited that night.
The restaurant will be showcasing the Indian menu every Wednesday night. You won't find Suvir Saran there but you will encounter his recipes.
Call (305) 520-6400 for more info.

10 comments:

Suvir Saran said...

Sara -

You are too kind to us travelers and chefs.

Thanks for this wonderful blog post. You make me sound good. Almost good. Goofy and silly too. Do I not like Florida? Really? I think I do.. but I also love it. I only wish the populace of NYC could be moved there. Then it would be perfect! LOL!

I do admire chef Jonathan Wright a great deal. He is beyond just a chef. He is human, he is a traveler, he is educated, he is savvy in a very real manner and most of all he is gracious and kind. Can any one person ask for more? Not really. He is also a leader like few can be. Patient with his crew, allowing them to go at it alone but never far away if they take a wrong turn. The Setai is very lucky to have found him and lucky that he has groomed this team in the way he did.

I wish I could take any credit for the meal. Jonathan and his team did everything. They made me proud. They made me look good. And they made me feel good about India, our cuisine and Florida. It is they that deserve any and all accolades and appreciation. If the recipes are faulty - that blame rests squarely on my shoulders.

Thanks for making time to come join us last Wednesday. It was a treat to have met you. And I look forward to cooking from your book on the foods of Persia seen through your families history.

Persia is hardly celebrated as it ought to be today. That is unfortunate. The world has the Persians to thank for many wonderfully brilliant facts of life as we understand them.

I hope in my lifetime I can see a reversal of luck for Iran and thereby the heritage and magic of the Iranian/Persian people.

It is my hope that you and yours proudly celebrate Persia every day you live and that all that are touched by you, your writing, your hospitality and warmth - find a new way of thinking of Persia and thereby giving Persia its due credit for its place in history.

Suvir

Anonymous said...

I, too have been enchanted by the cooking of Suvir Saran. To eat at Devi is to know a marvelous secret, and you instantly "get it."
You will be ruined for run of the mill Indian food forever. But cheer up! Saran has two cookbooks out and they will change the way you cook forever. I give them often as gifts and have yet to find someone uninspired by Suvir's palate. To know Suvir Saran and his cooking is to be always learning.

sara said...

Suvir - all one can expect from a meal is that it be tasty and transportive. Last Wedensday night did both and I thank you for that. You have inspired me - that's for all to see. I only hope I live up to your expectations.
And yes, I agree on all counts when it comes to Jonathan Wright. Every meal I've had by his hands has been fantastic. Sad to see him (and his amazing veal cheek-foie gras dumplings) leave Miami. Just another reason to visit Barbados...

Anon - looking forward to dining at Devi the next time I'm in New York - ready to be ruined! And I believe I have some cookbook readuing to do.

Suvir Saran said...

Thanks again Sara!
I await your volume(s) on Persia and the cookery of the empire.

Am I right to believe that all countries whose names end with the word "stan" were part of the Persian empire?

That alone should tell anyone really interested in culture, history and the innovations of yesteryear about the place of Persia in the world and how historically important and significant it was/is.

"veal cheek-foie gras dumplings" - That Jonathan is something else. I will need to visit Barbados for those. Something to look forward to.

Anon - thanks for your encouraging words. You must be waiting for your check from me to arrive in the mail. LOL!

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Anonymous said...

Sara, when you go, be sure to have the tasting menu at Devi, and pace yourself! As tasting menus go, theirs is very generous and so reasonably priced. A veritable embarrassment of riches. By the time you get to the dessert course, you'll be silent because all your superlatives have been used up. In the cookbooks - don't miss the meatloaf, yes, the meatloaf! I would rather eat that than the finest piece of steak. I have been cooking my way through both books for over a year and have yet to make something that doesn't pass my test: do I care if I ever have this again? So far, the answer is always an enthusiastic yes!!! Thank you, Suvir, for sharing your amazing palate.

suvir saran said...

I know who Ms. Anonymous is. This is my dear friend Sally Longo. Host of Dinner at 8, on our local Channel 8 in North Country. Sally is also a fellow cookbook author. Doggedly loyal to her friends. She finds a way to discovery something positive in everything she sees in her friends and their creations.

Sally - thanks for taking time to come post comments on Sara's blog. It is a beautiful place to travel the world with a writer that does not add too much editorial commentary of her own, but gives you a great sense of place every time she shares a discovery.

I found myself reading aloud to Charlie and Ajit posts from the Tokyo and Israel sections of this blog. Beautiful photos, simple prose and humor when appropriate disarmed any doubts within me about the need for blogs. I have struggled with having a blog and justifying the "self" that is celebrated in the very idea. It makes me question my ego and makes me wonder if I am losing some of my dignity each time I post.

Sara has given me belief in the power of this medium. Now I can be at more ease knowing that in my own little way I too may be adding a lighter moment or two, or deeper moment or two into another persons life and giving them a moment to savor happily.

Sara - Sally does cook from the books and she has gotten many who may have never brought any foreign food into their lives open up their minds and pantries to the riches of the world of flavors and tastes. And for that I owe her a lot more than modest words from me could ever convey.

sara said...

Wow, Suvir, you're really making me blush.
But seriously, thank you again for the kind words. You've reminded me why I started this blog in the first place - to chronicle my adventures and to practice writing. And I haven't looked at those posts in years - years! - but I took a trip down bloggy memory lane and it was fun reliving all that stuff. I've been neglecting this blog recently - you loyal readers out there who are still clutching at these Internet fragments I salute you! - but I hope a long overdue vacation that I'm about to take and an overseas trip will give me the jolt I need to get back into this.

And Sally Longo - pleased to meet you. Thannk you for stopping by my corner of the internet, hope you found somethng you liked. And I will look into your Adirondack scholarship - something I know nothing about so am looking forward to it. And Suvir's meatloaf!

Anonymous said...

Sara - I wish I had known about you when my daughter and I visited MB last year. We left feeling there must have been more to the place. It was a spur of the moment trip so I didn't have time to make my usual want-to-see list. We did run across a great Greek restaurant, as authentic as any in Athens, but the sight of so many shuttered hotels was sad and alarming. To think we could have had veal cheek foie gras dumplings!!! Next time...
I agree with Suvir about the appeal of your blog - keep it up!
btw, great photo of Suvir! Not many have managed to capture him looking relaxed and happy, even though that is his usual demeanor.
Should you ever come to this neck of the woods, I'll cook you up a squirrel. Just joking; how about a great rabbit terrine with fennel, pernod, and pistachios, though?
- Sally

sara said...

Sally, was that Mandolin you visited? I love that place. It's a perfect Greek/Turkish hybrid right in the middle of Urban Miami. I posted about it here -
http://allpurposedark.blogspot.com/2009/12/mandolin-aegean-bistro.html

Next time you're in town, let me know. Will send you my must-eat list.
And rabbit terrine - that will be a first for me. And I do love me some fennel and pistachios. Looking forward to it.