REVIEW: Neighborhood Indian Mainstay Girds for the Revolution

Image: Howard Portnoy

In case you hadn’t noticed, Indian restaurants in New York are in the throes of a revolution. Some are being tugged in the direction of a return to basics, to offering what Chef Chintan Pandya of the recently opened Dhamaka calls food from the “forgotten side of India” (think goat kidney and testicles). Others are answering a call to globalize, to further westernize their food by working in high-end ingredients such as as truffles and morels.

The Upper West Side veteran Sapphire Cuisines of India is unique in that it is responding to both tendencies. It is still serving all the expected staples — the tandooris, the kormas, the biryanis — but with a keen awareness of the dishes’ long histories. At the same time, the restaurant has added a $95-a-head four-course prix fixe menu that features quail, filet mignon, and double chocolate cake.

One advantage to “eating Indian” at this particular point in time is the tendency of Indian menus in New York to reflect the dietary habits of 39% of the subcontinent’s inhabitants, who are vegetarians. You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy the delicious dahi kebab, which is made by draining off the watery whey in yogurt, then shaping the thick curd into discs, and pan-frying till crisp and golden. The little cake is at once puckeringly tart and creamy, nicely complemented by the mound of raw mustard seed mango slaw on top which it is arranged.

Sapphire’s dahi kebab (Image: Howard Portnoy)

On some nights, salmon replaces the sea bass in the kerala fish curry, chunks of the handsomely browned fish in a sauce whose color betrays its chief ingredients: coconut milk and strong mustard.

Kerala fish curry (Image: Howard Portnoy)

You may quibble with the term barbecue used in the listing for Goan barbecued ribs since, as all “‘cue” fans can tell you, good barbecue is the result of low, slow cooking, and the heat in the tandoor in which these ribs are fired approaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit. You won’t, however, have any problem with the flavor or succulence of the meat or the crispy masala truffle fries on which they are stacked.

Goan barbecure ribs (Image: Sapphire Cuisines of India)

Your slab of beef tenderloin comes cooked as ordered, cloaked by a thick, creamy sauce whose surface is dappled with pink peppercorns. The distinct aroma of cumin arising from the plate can be traced to the accompanying roasted fingerlings, which are “tempered” with whole seeds of the spice that have been briefly toasted in ghee.

Filet mignon (Image: Howard Portnoy)

At dessert, that old workhorse, kheer (rice pudding), is given a tweak toward modernism through the additions of fresh berries and a sprinkling of crushed nuts and chocolate shavings. A mint leaf protrudes from the surface like a feather, perhaps heralding the revival of the mint garnish.

Kheer (Image: Howard Portnoy)

The interiors at Sapphire represent an eclectic mix of design features ranging from vaulted ceilings to Corinthian columns to touches here and there of dark wood wainscoting. The house’s lone nod to the kitsch that typified East Sixth Street in its heyday is a life-size figure of a bearded and turbaned man who looks ready to tell your fortune.

Price range: $9 to $18 for appetizers, $18 to $69 for main courses, and $8 to $14 for dessert. The prix fixe menu is $95.

Sapphire Cuisines of India, 2014 Broadway (at 69th St.), 212-245-4444, is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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