Spice Flight Dinner at Turmerik, Sunnyvale
- Melanie Wong Jun 8, 2003 05:17 AM
Last year, Id asked Vince for a tour of the drinking and eating establishments on Sunnyvales Murphy Avenue restaurant row. We finally got around to the first installment. Part 5 of the roving birthday celebration landed at Turmerik, which he had tried several times before.
His raves for Turmerik and Alexandras birthday dinner post (http://www.chowhound.com/california/b...) had framed my expectations. Teed up this way, my first impressions, frankly, were let-downs.
Several things have changed over the last year. To show the deep hole Turmerik had to rise up from in my estimation, Ill describe the negatives first. On week nights, dinner is served at a small number of tables in the bars lounge area and not in the larger upstairs dining room. The hostess said they felt it was cozier in the lounge. To me it was too dark and closed in and within ear shot of the back door clanging each time someone entered from the parking lot. When I handed the hostess a bottle of white wine for the bartender to chill, she acted like I had given her a rotten fish. I had been looking forward to having the venison chop tandoori and was disappointed that it was no longer on the menu. To take the edge off while we decided on our main choices, wed quickly ordered the crab cakes, a new item on the menu. It was well-conceived with a crackly crisp vermicelli coating, but was disappointingly starchy within and lacking in crab flavor. All that said, as soon as we were in our own servers hands and the rest of our meal started to appear, all was soon forgiven.
We decided to order the prix fixe Spice Flight menu one vegetarian, and one not. Each dish featured spices, aromatics and seasonings that are the core of Indian cooking. With each course, silvery bowls of the central spices were presented too for us to smell, touch and taste. Show below, on the left side are the curry leaves, cloves and black cardamom pods used in our soup course. On the right are green cardamom pods and saffron incorporated in the kulfi dessert. I really enjoyed this educational component.
The Chefs Special Spice Flight available through May 31 included:
Vegetarian, $24 per person
Spinach with Mushrooms
Non Vegetarian, $29 per person
Coconut-Chile Shrimp Soup
Spinach with Mushrooms
Lentils, saffron rice, and rosemary naans accompanied each menu. A tasting of four wines and a port to compliment the dishes was offered for an additional $20 per person, but we had brought our own wines and did not order this supplement.
The vegetarian appetizer, papdi chaat, is shown on the left. This was three papdi wafers, broiled dry until crisp, made of potatoes and chickpeas seasoned with ajwain and cumin. These were adorned with a darkly seasoned complex vegetable mixture brightened with bits of diced freshly acidic tomato and bound with a vegetable reduction sauce. The pool of yogurt sauce was decorated with chevrons of mint chutney and tamarind chutney. The effect was a brilliant medley of textures crisp, soft and chewy, combined with hot and cold temperatures, and flavors that hit high notes, bass tones, acidic, savory, sweet, bitter, salty, and probably some hidden reaches that dont even have names. It certainly woke up my palate and made me pay attention. Arranged on the dinnerware imported from India, along with the fine cutlery, this was one of most fanciful presentations.
The crab masala, on the right, was a densely packed mound of high quality lump crab meat and a bit of soft stewed onion and tomato presented on a medallion cut from a banana leaf. Highly seasoned with black cumin and turmeric, the sweetness and delicate flavor of the tender and juicy crab meat was overpowered and lost in the masala spicing.
The papdi vegetarian offering was the undisputed star in this match up.
re: Melanie Wong
When the empty large soup plates were set at our places, we started to realize that this fixed price menu was going to be a huge quantity of food. The appetizers were each large enough for two people to share, and now a big portion of soup was coming up. We liked the manner of service, pouring the steaming hot, fragrant soups with flourish from individual-size pitchers at the table. All of the aromatics were preserved for our enjoyment at presentation.
The brick red soup was the vegetarian tomato shorba. Bright and vivid, tart citrusy acidity carried the tomato and cilantro blend to the upper registers and the black and shadowy flavors of clove and black cardamon spices struck deep in the bass range. Light-bodied and almost weightless, the complex and intense flavors made a prickly dance on the palate, then resolved in a sparkling clean wisp of a finish.
The maize-colored coconut-chile shrimp soup was spicy hot with a mid-palate warmth and herbal tone from fresh chiles. Redolent with curry leaves and coconut milk, the dense and creamy-textured heavy base was flecked with bits of caramelized shallots. Shrimp in two formats provided textural contrast: large pieces were juicy and softly tender and the chopped nubbin-like bits were more cooked through to a near rubbery snap. Mouth-coating and voluptuous on the palate, the burnished and round flavors swirled through and lingered on in a richly satisfying way.
The food coma started to set in at this point. I had to push the bowls aside and not finish this course, or I wouldnt have been able to even taste the rest of my dinner. I went back and forth between the two soups many times trying to decide which I liked best, and finally ended in a draw. Each was intriguing, delicious, and well-crafted in its own way.
By now I had peppered our server with many questions that she had dutifully relayed to the kitchen for answers. The chef came out from the kitchen to check on how we liked our soups. We nodded in satisfaction and he ducked back into the kitchen.
re: Melanie Wong
When the next course was ready to be served, I said to Vince, Lets just snap a picture, then have them packed up. But they looked and smelled so wonderful, I forced myself to have a bite first.
The chicken makhani had chunks of tandoori chicken swathed in a rich tomato sauce scented with fenugreek. The white meat chicken was smoky, moist and succulent and deeply infused with the seasonings. The chiffonade of fresh basil and some minced raw garlic added a fresh flavor punch to the slow-cooked flavors.
The paneer makhani featured homemade white cheese in a similar tomato and fenugreek sauce. Yet, this was balanced more to elevated and sharper tones without the depth and roundness of the chicken version. It seemed simpler to me, and for this round the vegetarian dish didnt hold its own in the match-up.
The spinach with mushrooms was made from fresh spinach, barely stewed with mushroom slices, roasted nutmeg and mace to keep its vibrant character and color. A topping of fresh diced tomatoes and minced garlic added a bright lift.
The lentils were plain and perfunctory. The saffron rice was perfection, very long and whole individual separate grains with fragrant saffron shadings. The excellent small-sized rosemary naans were tender, pillowy and well-blistered. The perfume of the rosemary needles released a wonderful accent amidst the grilled and yeasty scents and flavors.
Reflecting on the highly touted wine selection, the well-chosen list of unusual offerings seems to have languished. I noticed that the vintages of many wines were a year or two behind the current releases, indicating that sales have likely fallen below expectation. Without a sommelier on the floor to assist customers with selections, most will turn to the familiar and miss the many gems on this list. However, this means that there are some good deals to be had in interesting wines that have had an extra year or so to develop more fully and are priced below the market.
This time I had brought wines from my own cellar and did not order from the list. The luscious and over the top 1994 Bott-Geyl Grand Cru Sonnenglanz Vieilles Vignes Gewurztraminer showed beautifully with this menu. Concentrated and rich with lychee, grapefruit, spice and rosewater aromas and flavors in a powerful frame, the slight sweetness balanced by good acid levels in this wine was an especially good match with the papdi chaat and the coconut-chile shrimp soup. The 1994 Beringer North Coast Sangiovese was a shocker, shockingly excellent. I had opened it earlier that morning for a blind tasting exercise and to our surprise, the tasters were convinced it was a 95 Brunello. Firmly structured with deliciously complex sour cherry fruit, tobacco, cedar, and French oak shadings, it was sacrificed before its time. It was a fine pairing with the tomato-based dishes, especially the paneer makhani.
re: Melanie Wong
As we were enjoying our main course, the chef came out to check on us again and seemed more willing to chat near the close of the evening. As our conversation got more intense, he pulled up a chair and I poured him tastes of our two wines. He introduced himself as Executive Chef Arvind Bhargava and told us that he had come from the Bombay Club in Washington DC and before that was executive chef at the Taj in New Delhi. Hes a graduate of CIA and had worked in several New York restaurants.
Given this opportunity, I asked what the difference was between the two makhani sauce preparations that made the chicken version feel rounder. He seemed pleased that I had noticed, and said that the addition of some cream, not to add flavor but to soften the finish was the trick. For the secret to the moistness of the chicken, the chicken is only half-cooked in the tandoor, just enough to add a layer of flavor and open up the pores for the seasonings to seep in when it finishes cooking in the sauce.
I commented that I could trace the traditional Indian roots of most of the dishes, but where did the delicious concept of the coconut-chile soup come from? He puffed up with pride to say that it was his own creation. He presented me with his card, suggested that I call ahead next time and offered to make any Indian dish I desired in grand hotel style. Given his training in Western culinary technique, I replied that I hoped he would draw on the two traditions to create new taste combinations. I insisted that I was more interested in sampling original dishes hes developed but has not offered to the public yet. He said he was game and we agreed to stay in touch about this.
Now Vince and I were ready for dessert. The refreshingly icy yet very rich frozen kulfi was spiced with saffron and green cardamom. The concentration of milk and cream seemed to come from a gentle cooking with no sign of the baked flavors of canned evaporated milk. Some zig-zags of bittersweet chocolate sauce and ground pistachios completed the presentation. I only had room for two bites, whereas Vince wolfed down his serving. When I expressed my surprise that he had inhaled his, since he doesnt have a sweet tooth, he corrected me saying, Its not that I dont like sweets. I only like good desserts and this is outstanding. Then I replied, If you think its all that, why dont you lick the plate? And he did!!!
Vince took care of the bill, commenting that it was ridiculously low for the quality and quantity wed received. Also, we were not charged for corkage on our two bottles. He said, We have to come back here.
We definitely will.
re: Melanie Wong
WOW! All I can say is I wish I were there! A wonderful report with great visuals.
If you want to put a group together to put this chef thru his paces...I would more than happily accompany you!
Licking plates! You don't see that everyday...now posterity shares it on the World Wide Web.
This is a serious place. I had considered going here about a year ago but the prices seemed very high. Perhaps they have come down a bit with the economy. The last time I looked at their website, they had a simply incredible wine list - which they should since it was created by Rajat Parr the former sommelier at Fifth Floor in San Francisco.
I am not surprised this turned out to be such a fine meal. I am a bit surprised it was so reasonably priced.
re: Paul H
Prices have definitely come down. Iirc, someone had mentioned that there were no wines by the glass under $8. My recollection of the list is that now nearly all the prices are less than $8 per glass. The list also has far more California wines than it did at opening (I similarly drooled over Raj's original list). Many of the wines on the original list are "hand sells", and if there's no one on the floor to push those wines as pairings for particular dishes, they're not going to sell themselves.
It was pretty quiet the night I was there. When I asked the chef how business was, he said that's slow on week nights, but weekend dinners were still busy and the lunch traffic was very busy.
Having just read Chron's review of Turmerik, I checked its website again to see if a new spice flight might be in the works. The same menu I tried has been extended through August 31, 2003, so you have another chance. It really is a deal and a half and a good sampler of the cuisine here.
Heh heh, thanks, dyno. The chowhound audience is more discerning and they want to know all that stuff.
I'll tell you, while I was quizzing Turmerik's chef, he was assessing me with a critical eye at the same time. He wanted to know which Indian restaurants I frequented and liked. The acid test! I told him that I still remembered a dish I'd had in Manhattan 15 years ago, and had not run across it again. He knew he restaurant and finished my sentences describing its preparation and said he could make it for me any time.