Eternal Circle Fusion cuisine is a quintessentially American innovation, the inevitable result of our nation's status as the world's crucible of identities, combined with our national obsession with progress in all its forms. While traditional cultures may be content to leave well enough alone, Americans will always try to figure out how to make well enough better.
Even the venerable cuisine of India is subject to creative updating by ambitious chefs bent on demonstrating their American ingenuity. True, Indian cuisine has taken centuries to develop, incorporating the influences of dozens of distinct cultures to become one of the world's most refined and diverse cuisines?but did an Indian ever think of fricassee of wild mushroom with chickpea spaetzle? Well, we did (at Tabla). Why settle for samosas when you can have goat cheese samosas (at Raga)? Why opt for masala dosa when you can have your dosa stuffed with sea bass (at Surya)?
I'm not trying to imply that there's anything wrong with Indian fusion, but with the city awash in funky Indian fusion joints, it's reassuring to note that some of the finest Indian restaurants in town are also the most traditional. I'm thinking of Dawat, Chola, Bay Leaf, Cafe Spice, Salaam Bombay and, now, Sapphire, at Columbus Circle.
Sapphire is owned in part by a couple of partners in Salaam Bombay, which has long been one of my favorite Indian restaurants for its diverse, well-executed menu of regional specialties from all over India. Like Salaam Bombay, Sapphire really gives diners a sense of the immense range and potential of Indian cuisine, but it ratchets up the quality (and the prices) two or three notches, placing the restaurant in the august company of the city's top-tier Indian joints, and making it competitive with the kind of intensely flavored, spice-infused cuisine you'd find in the great five-star hotels of India (most of the best Indian restaurants in India are still located in the big international hotels, although I've heard that restaurant culture has started to take hold among the wealthier, more cosmopolitan residents of Mumbai).
A traditional Indian restaurant from its stereotypically formal waiters right on down to the amusing typos on the menu (anyone for Lamb Scaloops in a Mild Sauce?), Sapphire insists on its own elegance, even though most of its patrons aren't so concerned (polo shirts and open collars abound). Waiters move about with all solicitousness, making sure your every whim is catered to (but stopping short, thankfully, of folding your napkin should you have to leave the table). The dining room, which you enter past the always-empty bar and through a pair of magnificent hand-carved antique wooden doors, is spacious and lushly decorated with fabrics and wall hangings. On one side of the room the ceiling is painted sky blue with puffs of white cloud?a pleasant effect, actually, despite how cheesy it sounds.
The formality grates a bit, particularly if you're trying to settle in for a quiet evening, but once the food starts arriving all distractions become insignificant. The heart of great Indian cuisine is in the spices, with dishes frequently calling for a dozen or more. Chef Vijay Bhargava proves himself a master, both at combining and balancing the various spices and herbs in the complex mixtures (masalas) that form the foundation of the different dishes, and in coaxing the maximum flavor out of the masalas to create intense, complex sauces (curries). Nor does it hurt that his main ingredients are universally fresh and of premium quality.
For starters, skip the samosas (they're excellent, filled with tender potato and pea and studded with cumin seeds) and the chicken pakoras (greaseless, tempura-like chicken fingers with a sweet dipping sauce) in favor of more ambitious fare: Mussels Porial, giant bivalves removed from the shell, sauteed and served in a mild but complexly flavored sauce made from myriad spices including chilies, mustard and fresh curry leaves; or Shrimp Balchao, large shrimp sauteed and covered in a sultry, highly concentrated tomato-based sauce suffused with the heat of roasted chili peppers. There's also a superb rendition of mulligatawny soup, this one tart and mild, with the flavor of a subtle masala permeating the thin lentil broth.
The entree section boasts more than 40 selections, including the full complement of roasted meats and fish from the tandoor oven, the old Northern Indian standards (chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo) and a range of unusual recipes from across the subcontinent, including Goan spicy lamb stew and Gujrati-style bitter melon and potatoes. Sapphire includes a large selection of vegetarian options, ranging from Rajasthani-style okra to vegetable croquettes simmered in cream sauce, and the usual assortment of breads (roti, naan, paratha) plus some superb kulcha, stuffed with seafood then tandoor-baked.
Of the tandoori dishes, we enjoyed the chicken tikka (white meat chicken cooked in the tandoor oven). But the rack of lamb stopped us in our tracks: three succulent chops permeated with smoky flavor and the pungency of the spice marinade. At $22.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu, but worth the premium. Strangely, chicken tikka masala disappointed, despite a superb curry sauce, because the chicken itself lacked the tandoor-baked flavor we'd enjoyed in the plain chicken tikka. Achari lamb, cooked in a masala incorporating super-pungent Indian pickle, nevertheless proved pleasingly mild, with only a hint of tartness in the rich curry and meltingly tender chunks of lamb stew meat. Goa shrimp curry is spicy and bold, redolent of coconut and chili pepper.
One of the joys of Indian cuisine is the diversity and quality of its vegetarian repertoire. Chef Bhargava offers some refined renditions, including Bhaghare Baigan, baby eggplant stuffed with Southern Indian spices and simmered in a kadhai (a bit like a wok) until chewy but tender, and redolent with spice flavor. Even a dish as simple as Aloo Gobi Matar?potato, cauliflower and peas?is transformed by the chef into an aggressively flavored stew, the vegetables tender and aromatic.
For dessert, there's a decent kheer (Indian rice pudding), creamy and mild, but a bit sweet for my taste. There's also a selection of astonishingly flavorful sorbets (peach, pineapple, coconut, orange), each served in its respective frozen, hollowed-out fruit.
Sapphire is a welcome addition to the city's high-end Indian options, which just keep improving as the years go by. It's not cheap, with dinner prices at $5-$11 for appetizers, and $10-$22 for entrees, but the cuisine is well worth the money. Go with a group so you can try a variety of dishes, and don't forget to take a look at the wine list?Sapphire is one of the few Indian restaurants in town with its own sommelier. Reservations are recommended but probably not required except on weekend nights.