Graffiti Food and Wine Bar: 224 East 10th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenue) New York, NY
What do you do when a tiny little restaurant opens on your block? Well in my case, you completely ignore it for a year or so until the throngs of people waiting outside on the majority of evenings start to pique your interest and then you are compelled to check it out.
10th Street between First and Second Avenue has been called “Little Japan” for the row of Japanese Restaurants all nestled together in the middle of the block. Then there’s Japanese run Chickalicious dessert cafe across the street, not forgetting the perhaps undeservedly renowned Momofuku noodle shop right around the corner. Even the Italian restaurant Dieci has a japanese chef! So when this odd little hazard orange colored storefront opened as some kind of “Indian fusion” cafe, it did seem somewhat out of place.
Chef Jehangir Mehta opened Graffiti in the East Village of New York City in 2007 after highly acclaimed stints at New York City restaurants including Aix, Compass, and Jean-Georges.
Before it was a restaurant, the storefront had been a scuba diving shop for a few years (my husband got his diving license there) then it had a couple of quick incarnations as something or other before it became Graffiti. Intimate is an understatement. There are four tables which seat a maximum of 26 people and not a lot of elbow room. Still the advantage of sharing a table is you get to check out what other people are ordering without conspicuous craning of the neck. We knew going in there that the chef had been a pastry chef at Jean-George but we really couldn’t tell what to expect.
The two of us were seated at one of the bigger tables, at first alone and soon joined by a party of 4. It was very snug, more cozy than claustrophobic. We immediately recognized Chef Mehta from the Iron Chef show on the food network. It turns out he was the runner up – no small feat! He chatted to us a little while about his experience on the show then it was down to business.
The menu is divided into plate sizes and prices rather than appetizer, main and desert etc. We sampled a couple of plates from every section and slyly examined our neighbors’ orders. Just about everything was surprising – when I ordered the green mango paneer I was expecting something akin to the paneer curry standard in Indian restaurants. What we got was much more novel, little bites of beautifully spiced cheese set amongst swirls of coulis – dainty indeed. I particularly liked a foie gras raspberry crostini with walnut salad. The devastating richness of the Fois Gras was appropriately doled out in minute bites. Dishes are quite constructed. – I was expecting the watermelon feta salad with mint sorbet to be more substantial. There were a smattering of perfect little triangles of watermelon upon which you can gently lie a sprinkling of feta and a dollop of sorbet to create a wonderful burst of flavors in your mouth. We both could have eaten a lot more of it but it certainly got us excited about what was to come. Buns, both pork and eggplant (the menu is pretty generous to vegetarians and vegans), come the japanese way, with delicious stuffings wrapped in a small doughy pancake. There are lots of nods to Asian cuisine, indeed to French and Latin American styles too. It’s definitely eclectic, but tied together by Indian notes, the raita style mint yogurt sauce that accompanied a chickpea encrusted skate for one, hints of cumin and cardamom where you least expect them. Desserts were the most “American” of all the choices, but there were surprises there too.
The small inexpensive plates ($7, $12 and $15) allow you to experience a good few of these dishes, we shared everything and loved it all. A small but drinkable selection of wines ($25/bottle, $8 glass) allows you to pick by grape and not price – The teeny tiny space and the most uncomfortable stools did not encourage us to linger over coffee and drinks, but when you have so few seats and a gaggle of people waiting outside it makes sense.
Martha Kessler NYC Culinary Correspondent