Trade, conquest, and travel carve out a culinary roadmap that leaves very obvious cues behind. Follow potatoes or chilies from the New World and you’ll end up in the Old World, then riding the current of oceangoing explorers you will get to Asia.
At Vermilion, restaurateur Rohini Dey found these culinary crosscurrents of history and geography so fascinating that she created a restaurant that fuses the flavors of her native India to those of Latin America.
Separated though they may be by ocean, similar ingredients tie the two subcontinents together: lychee, guava, tamarind, and chilies, to name but a few.
There are two Vermilion restaurants, the original in Chicago, which has fared well since its inception, and the other, with ample elbow room, in Manhattan’s Midtown East, which has been received less kindly.
Fusion is a risky proposition. It’s sometimes mystifying, sometimes maddening, and often complicated. You can’t quite put your finger on where the flavors are from: maybe here, maybe there. The truth is somewhere in between.
In traditional cuisines, centuries or millennia have shaped expectations. But with fusion, there are no expectations, or rather; you might have as many expectations as there are different customers.
That could go a long way to explain the vitriol that the New York Vermilion has received on Yelp in the last few years. (But given it’s Yelp, who knows what else is going on.)
A former employee of the World Bank and former McKinsey consultant, Dey set to work to revamp the menu this spring, to the tune of about 25 new dishes, created by co-executive chef Anup Patwal and sous-chef Javier Alvarez.
Patwal first worked in five-star hotels in India before working in Miami, where in his off-time, he would hang out at barbecues with his Cuban or Peruvian friends and learn—from them and their mothers—to cook their dishes.
Where is kale not to be found these days? With the Crisp Kale Bhel ($9), the cruciferous gets battered and fried, and remodeled with the flavors of Indian street food. Its crispy brooms sweep up the different sauces—one with a tamarind base, the other a lemony yogurt base—and lastly pick up bits of gunpowder. Not the combustible stuff, but the Indian spice powder mix. It’s not all finely ground up here; white and yellow lentils give the whole delicious mess some crunch. My eating companions and I kept reaching again and again for this dish until we had polished it off.
I also tried a quartet of kebabs from the tandoor section ($24). The presentation is dramatic, with four metal skewers hanging down from a metal contraption. Of all four variations offered the Anardana Murgh, chicken in a pomegranate base, stood out the most, but for the most part, there are better tandoor dishes to be had about 20 blocks south in Curry Hill.
Among the new entrees is the Smoked Nicaraguan Tamale ($24), based on a recipe from Alvarez’s grandmother, who grew up in Nicaragua. Made with fresh corn, the dish has a homey comforting sweetness to it. It gets “Indianized” with the addition of tandoor chicken, though the corn is really what makes the dish. It doesn’t even need the protein hit.
Another fusion entree is the Brazilian seafood stew, Caldeirada de Peixe ($25), where a house blend of garam masala, fenugreek, coconut milk, tomatoes, and clam juice come together to create a harmonious balancing act. Patwal experimented with a number of spice combinations: curry powder, cumin and coriander, turmeric—that were too overwhelming or didn’t work—before discovering the present incarnation.
The desserts are classics with unexpected twists of spice, and worth saving room for.
The Vermilion Hedonism is a flourless chocolate cake ($10) that aims to impress. Sitting on top of the cake is a pink cloud of cotton candy with a faint dusting of spices—chili powder when I was there but can sometimes be clove or star anise. Pour the spicy chocolate ganache over it all to watch the cotton candy disintegrate into veritable nothingness. But warning: the chili is still very much there—you can taste its spicy kick with each bite.
I enjoyed the sweet-meets-spicy dessert, though my friend preferred the star anise inflected Tres Leches Jar ($10), topped with burned marshmallows. The star anise imbues the dessert with a licorice-like scent but the marshmallows and the presentation—served in a jar—retain the comfort factor.
Whether Vermilion in New York will experience its own sweet ending with this do-or-die culinary relaunch is yet to be seen.
480 Lexington Ave. (between 46th & 47th streets)
Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
5 p.m.–10 p.m.