Fusion cuisine brings new flavors to the forefront in local restaurants
Back in the day, 1998, my nine-year-old friends and I traveled from group to group at Downtown Day Camp singing Spice Girls Songs to all. Fifteen years later, I got the chance to become a different kind of spice girl, boldly sampling the newly-arrived cuisine of two chefs notorious for their use of spices in their cross-country fusion creations.
Benares Tribeca, 45 Murray Street
Full disclosure, I'm actually not a fan of Indian food, but I've been trying to be more adventurous lately. There was a lot of buzz surrounding this one - you can barely find a seat during lunch hour - so I decided to boldly go where I've never gone before.
The restaurant's storefront is deceptively kitschy, but the inside screams four star luxury. It's beautiful, modern and feels like it should be way more expensive than it is.
On this huge (seriously it's huge) menu, Chef Peter Beck, heralded for his cuisine at the Michelin-starred Tamarind and Chola, pays homage to all 28 states of India, fusing Indian flavors with a number of other global influences.
Chef Beck's seared Tawa scallops adopt Mexican accents with tomatillo, green chili, ginger sauce, and mango-tomato relish (sort of like chutney-meets-salsa with kick), and the Kashmiri Tikki appetizer is made with beetroot instead of the more traditional Indian potato cake, spiced with ginger, fennel, garlic and cumin, and served with a cooling mint relish. The Adraki Samosa is amazing - my trusty sidekick, Jessica, is an Indian food fanatic, and says she's never had 'em like this; the cumin and mango powder linger on your lips, giving a cinnamon-like aftertaste to the potato and pea filled turnovers.
Classics like Chicken Tikka Masala Tandoori are juicy and spicy, and naan gets a number of herb-inspired nods with varieties like garlic and rosemary.
I'll end with this: I had chocolate lava cake served with a scoop of rose petal ice cream for desert, which needs no further explanation.
Khe-Yo, 157 Duane Street
Chef and restaurateur Marc Forgione, owner of the nearby Restaurant Marc Forgione, has made Laotian Chef Soulayphet Schwader, also known as "Chef Phet," his Executive Chef in charge of the menu.
"Khe-Yo," which translates to "green," pays homage to the restaurant's tables made of reclaimed teak and to the ingredients Chef Phet uses, which are sourced from local greenmarkets. The elephant mural on the back wall represents Laos, the Land of a Million Elephants.
When the waiter brought over a little bin of sticky rice and instructed us to dig in and palm a "chunk" of it, I was incredibly intrigued. After being further instructed to smear it with Bang-Bang sauce like butter on bread (but without the pesky knife), I knew I was in for an exotic experience. The Bang-Bang sauce is made of chilis, garlic, lime juice, palm sugar, mortar and pestle.
The main staples of Laotian cuisine are ingredients like galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, padek, chilis, and ginger. Sticky rice, or Khao-Nieo, serves as the centerpiece of Chef "Phet's" menu, which includes Crunchy Coconut Rice, Lemongrass Berkshire Spare Ribs, Chili Prawns (complete with heads), Sesame Beef Jerky, Bamboo Grilled Ginger Quail, and Pork Jowl Red Curry.
The people at the table next to us were very enthusiastic about the Jurgielewicz Duck Salad, and one of the patrons, an older gentleman, tried to feed me a spoonful of Bang-Bang sauce on my way out.
Chef Phet will soon be serving a lunch menu of Bahn Mi sandwiches from the restaurant storefront's takeout counter called - what else - Khe-Yosk.