Before we get started, a confession from a so called “food writer”: I know painfully little about Indian cuisine.
However, I have firm belief that what’s defined as “good tasting” can be universal. After all, how can people growing up in different parts of the world all embrace French fries, red wine, and a chicken stir-fry? Encouraged by the much revered Chairman Kaga (yes, I’m aware he’s fictional), I have learned to embrace different cuisines and tastes with an open mind, and an empty stomach. This adventure brought me to Tulsi.
After all, I thought if I want to experience Indian cuisine, might as well experience the works of a master.
Tulsi, which stands for Holy Basil and is pronounced “too-si”, is the new restaurant by tandoor master Hemant Mathurn. Specializing in northern Indian cuisine, Chef Mathurn gained the attention and respect of New York City food lovers with his exceptional work at Devi, the first North American Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin Star. The news of his move to Tulsi caused quite a bit of controversy on the internet, as people wondered if he would remain an executive chef at Devi. As of today, he’s still listed as executive chef and co-owner at both restaurants, but nobody knows what’s going on behind the scenes.
What also drew me to the restaurant was the $65, 7 course tasting menu. I often credit tasting menus as the key that helped me experiment and expand my culinary horizons, especially with Japanese and French cuisines. Now I hope it can do the same for Indian cuisine.
Tulsi is tastefully decorated, with beautiful tiles, white linen tablecloth, and a stunning bar with a backdrop showing the outline of the world’s continents. However, because of the low ceilings, the restaurant lack’s the grandeur of other high end locations.
Our tasting menu started with a pumpkin ginger soup. The bisque was hearty, and with each spoon full you taste a bit of ground ginger. Then there’s the espresso-art like flower on the soup, simply beautiful.
Perhaps the ginger was a sign that Chef Mathurn was going to lead us through some wonderfully unique spices, and was used to warm up our palate. With each successive dish he slowly dialed up the heat. The calamari with tomato puree and onions looked, and tasted on the surface to be a simple, South East Asian course, but there’re layers of complex spices that show up at the end of each bite. For those who are unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, these are taste sensations that your tongue has probably never experienced.
The “fish castle” dish that followed show Italian influences in the Parmesan cheese powder, as well as central American flavors with the vegetable that accompanied the fish. Again, with each bite, you get a kick of spices at the end.
A palate cleanser was served in anticipation of the entrées. To my surprise, even the apple sorbet was infused with chili powder.
The following dish, the Bombay chicken curry really turns up the heat. However unlike some Sichuan dishes that numb you with a chili overload, you can taste the complex blend of spices with each bite of chicken. The rice on the side was so incredibly fluffy.
The second entrée featured two options. The Tandoori boar really showcased the skills of Chef Mathurn, as the spice rubbed boar came out of the Tandoori pit perfectly moist and flavored. The goat with rice and yogurt might not look as enticing as something from the Tandoori grill, but the goat meat was delicious and fell right off the bone. The only down side to this dish was that it was a bit too similar to the chicken curry.
Indians are probably not known for dessert, but Tulsi takes the dining experience seriously, and has a pastry chef making sweet creations. The tasting menu again offered a selection. The pistachio cake with passion fruit was tasty, and came with an interesting kulfi ice cream flavored with dried fruits. The other option was a chocolate cake, an interesting chai flan, and a moscat sorbet. It wasn’t a bad dessert in any way, but after the performance with the spices, it was slightly underwhelming.
All in all, I enjoyed my dining experience at Tulsi, and was inspired to understand more about Indian food. Admittedly, it’ll take many more trips to authentic Indian restaurants before I truly grasp the cuisine and its spices. What better place to start than the holy basil?
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Tulsi (Make a Reservation)
211 East 46th Street
New York, NY 10017