You know how sometimes you’ll be listening to a song on the car radio that you don’t really love but it’s better than a lot of the other stuff the other stations are playing, and then when the song is over, you change stations and find that a song you absolutely love, i.e. the original “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, is just ending? And how you want to kick yourself because you haven’t heard that cherished song in years? And how you hate that you settled for a song that was just all right? Well, that’s what happened with me the last time I went out for dinner at an Indian restaurant.
My charming companion and I ate at Curry Leaf, where the food was quite good but the waitstaff somewhat less than attentive and definitely far from charming. In addition, it was way too crowded for my taste. After we left and were on our way to the rest of our evening’s festivities, we discovered a new restaurant on East 27th Street hailed on its awning as “A southern Indian restaurant, totally vegetarian …and kosher too!” We peered through the window and saw a single man inside the otherwise empty restaurant. He reminded me of the “Please buy my candy” guy.
“Oh, how nice it looks!” I said. “I wish we’d seen this place first!”
We felt sad for the man inside the restaurant. The man and his clean, nicely decorated, spotless restaurant that no one was patronizing. I swore the man looked at us hopefully, and his heart probably skipped a beat or beat a little faster in anticipation of two people entering and sitting down at one of the brightly-tableclothed tables and enjoying some vegetarian kosher southern Indian food.
“We’ll be back!” I said to him, even though he couldn’t hear me. And we turned away and continued eastward on 27th Street.
Earlier this week, I went back to get a menu to take home, and when I went in to ask for one, the same man ran over to give me one.
“I’ll be back!” I said to him.
I went home and devoured the menu.
Yesterday I went back to the restaurant for lunch. I planned to indulge in the $5.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, which immediately recalled my days in Philadelphia and the golden age of gorging on Indian food buffets. This buffet was much more seductive than any I’d enjoyed in Philadelphia. (There I was “famous” for my Indian food indulgences.) Although I chose the buffet over my usual Indian dish (saag paneer the only time I will eat cheese), I didn’t attack it with the old lust. The desire was there, yes, but the need for promiscuity was not.
So here is what I ate:
I won’t tell you what all of it is. Because I forget. I did ask Peter, the affable owner of the restaurant (and the same man whom I’d seen twice before), what everything was, and he sat down at my table and told me, but I was too involved with tasting the food and being charmed by him to retain that information.
Peter runs a very fine operation. He knows what he’s doing. He was Leona Helmsley’s butler for a while, so he is no stranger to exacting standards. (In the face of customer complaints, he says, he now knows to respond “like a zombie”. He told me this with one of the most engaging smiles and genuine laughs.) And it shows throughout the restaurant and the and this is important to me immaculate ladies room (complete with pink toilet seat).
Peter endeared himself to me by asking me if I wanted to try a masala dosa. Of course I did, and I told him that if I hadn’t done the buffet, I would have ordered one (along with saag paneer). He said, “How about if I make you one, for just a dollar extra? Would you want it?”
How could I refuse? Even sight unseen. But especially sight seen, which was in just a few minutes. Look:
If Chennai Garden hadn’t already won me over the minute I stepped in to get a takeout menu, it certainly would have the moment I entered and was instantly welcomed by Peter. It would have with its dimly lit interior, brightly colored tablecloths, and fun Fiestaware dishes stacked at one end of the two buffet tables. At first I was put off by a be-yarmulked gray-haired and -bearded guy who wore a big bandage that appeared to be holding down one of his sideburns and his inability to eat without smacking and licking his lips with the same gusto Taxi does when presented with a new bone. But when I tasted the food, I understood the enthusiasm (if not the big bandage, which continued to perplex me for the duration of my lunch).
Chennai Garden was definitely worth coming back for. Definitely lip-smacking and -licking good (as revolting as that is).
As I told Peter that one night through the plate glass window when he couldn’t hear me, and as I told him yesterday face to face when he could, I will be back. Soon. I’ve found my song, and I’m not switching stations.
Note: Chennai Garden is located at 129 East 27th Street (between Park and Lexington).