I had almost forgotten, but the realization has now come rushing back: Food tastes better inside.
Oh, I know. I’ve just spent the summer and into the fall extolling the glories of curbside dining, that coronavirus middle ground between take-out-and-delivery-only and what we have again in New York City as of this week, limited indoor service in the city’s remaining restaurants.
I say remaining restaurants because many have already closed after six-and-a-half months of pandemic restrictions. The ones that survive have done it with a painful mix of staff cuts, altered menus, reimagined concepts, customer loyalty and, as of June 22, tables in the gutter, tables on the sidewalk, tables on rooftops, tables in vacant lots, tables in all kinds of places there’d never been tables before.
“ “Sixty reservations. The people have been calling. They are saying, ‘I want to eat inside. Do you have a table inside?’ We are very happy we are open and we can call our staff back.” ”
And thank God for all of them, given the bleak alternative. The outside dining, which Mayor Bill de Blasio just made permanent, brought much needed revenue to the city’s gasping restaurants and gave cooped-up New Yorkers a relatively safe place to go, the affluent ones who hadn’t already abandoned the city for their beach houses and summer homes.
But time marches on, even during a pandemic, and there I was again, finally enjoying a dinner out with four walls around me and a roof over my head. Quite a nice one, actually. I thought carefully about my return to indoor dining. I decided that, for the sake of continuity, the first supper should be exactly where the last supper was: at Tamarind on Hudson Street in Tribeca, one of the city’s — and maybe the world’s — top Indian kitchens, where everything is expertly prepared, impeccably served and presided over by the elegant and demanding Avtar Walia.
Walia’s immigrant story is an inspiring one. He came to New York from Punjab in northern India. After toiling as a warehouse manager for Gucci and a captain in several of the city’s Tandoor restaurants, he opened his own Indian fine-dining establishment, first on East 22nd Street and then further downtown in Tribeca.
We couldn’t get our regular table. Our regular table is the bar. The city’s current rules say no bar seating and no more than 25% capacity overall. The rules say a lot of other things too, including that the indoor tables, like the outdoor tables, must be at least 6 feet apart. In fact, our deuce on the banquette was a good 10 or 12 from the tables on either side.
“It feels normal,” said our server, Corina Vlas, as she delivered the opening papadum, thin, crisp, round, seasoned flatbread, a promising start. “I was expecting it to feel different,” she said. “But it feels surprisingly the same.”
I can’t say for sure how much was the chef and how much was my long-delayed relief at being back, but every sip and morsel after that hit me like a heightened experience.
The tart ginger pepper martini. The Punjabi tikhe kabab marinated in yogurt, roasted whole spices, jalapeños, ginger and garlic. The saag paneer, a spicy spinach dish. To sop it all up, some chewy and faintly warm rosemary naan. And at the end, a semi-frozen chunk of pistachio kulfi, somewhere between ice cream and sorbet and yet totally different from either of those.
I’m sure it would have all tasted great on the sidewalk. But at a time as desperate as this one, each baby step toward normalcy is worthy of celebration. And to me, this one felt like a giant leap.
As for Walia, after all he’d been through, he seemed deeply relieved to have diners inside his restaurant again. He’d never stopped doing takeout and delivery. He’d offered outside dining on the Hudson and Franklin Street sidewalks from the day City Hall said OK. He’d used the months from then till now to replace the upholstery, paint the walls, renovate the bathrooms and perform other upgrades.
“Sixty reservations,” he marveled on Thursday night. “The people have been calling. They are saying, ‘I want to eat inside. Do you have a table inside?’ We are very happy we are open and we can call our staff back.”
It’s been quite a journey, he said, and an expensive one. The landlord has been impossible, demanding every last penny of the $63,000-a-month rent. And inspectors from several city agencies, including the health and transportation departments, came by. “They measure the distances,” Walia said. “They tell me exactly where the tables can be and where to put the partition. ‘You can put the chairs on this side but not on that side.’”
All of which, he said, was fine with him.
“My message to diners? Don’t be scared. Every single restaurant has to comply with the rules and regulations. They have proper air filters. They have the distance. They are fully prepared for you.”
As for my regular table? “We can do the same distancing up there,” he said. “They should let us open the bar.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York and a former newspaper columnist.