When New York City haute- Indian restaurant Tabla—owned by Danny Meyer and headed by Chef Floyd Cardoz—closed five years ago, loyal customers were crushed. Cardoz did a stint at another Meyer project, North End Grill, before leaving to open The Bombay Canteen in his native Mumbai. He returned to Manhattan to launch Paowalla this summer, using local ingredients to create updated riffs on traditional dishes, alongside deep wine, beer and cocktail menus.
What made you decide to go more casual with this restaurant?
I’ve noticed over the years that my eating habits had changed. I love eating at really fancy restaurants, don’t get me wrong. But I found that they’re a time commitment, as well as an expense.
People are intimidated by going to a restaurant that’s really fancy, and I felt that if I do a restaurant that’s more casual, then people don’t have to dress up, don’t have to be intimidated, don’t have to feel like it’s going to be really expensive.
Look at what Mario Battali did—he still has Babbo, but he’s also opening more casual restaurants. Everyone wants to be like Mario. Everyone wants to make a cuisine that’s more approachable.
Plus over the years, after I closed Tabla, I heard people talking about how much they miss Bread Bar [the casual downstairs café at Tabla]. By no sense is this Bread Bar, but we saw that there was a demand for that.
What are some misconceptions about Indian food, and what are you hoping to teach people about it?
I have people come in and say, “Why is your chicken tikka dry?” Well, chicken tikka is always dry. There are a lot of misconceptions. A lot of people think that vegetarians in India just eat paneer, but that’s just in the north. I want my food to be accessible, and I want people to try new flavors. … Come with an open mind.
“One of the biggest fallacies is that you can drink only beer with Indian food.”
Aside from access to ingredients, what are some of the differences between running a restaurant in Mumbai and running one in NY? Do you find that diners have different attitudes in the two cities?
Two big differences in the diners. In India, people don’t like to make reservations. They like to come in with eight, ten people and want to be seated. They want to eat all at once.
In New York, people come in and order their entire meals, so they know what the pace of their meals is going to be. In India, people like to set the pace as they go, and order bits of this and that, so you can’t do food that takes a long time.
In New York, you’ve also been part of this culture of really renowned celebrity chefs. Is there a similar scene in Mumbai? Are you treated like a celebrity? And do you have any interest in building that scene?
There is a chef culture there, and a lot of people know who I am because of Top Chef, so I already have that. In the U.S., it’s more about your food and how good it is, and there are a lot of really good chefs who don’t have the stature they need because they don’t go on TV. In India, there are some chefs on TV who are not very good. But it’s changing. It’s changed a lot over the last 10 years there, with chefs collaborating more and helping make each other better.
You have some signature dishes that are totally your own, like the bacon naan. Are these things you feel obliged to keep making?
I cook not only for myself. As a chef, you can’t do that. You have to be able to adapt and listen to your guests. … When we closed Tabla and opened North End Grill, we decided not to make anything from Tabla. One of my guests ask[ed] me why we don’t have [the tamarind margarita]. I told him it’s a different restaurant. He said, “I’m from San Francisco, and I go to New York twice a month. I always went to Tabla for a tamarind margarita.” So we brought it back.
Speaking of drinks, curries and other Indian spices can be tough to pair because they’re so complex. What do you like to drink with your food?
One of the biggest fallacies I hear is that you drink only beer with Indian food. … You can drink wine with Indian food, too. A lot of California wines work. A lot of New World whites and bubbles work. Pinot Noirs work. Burgundies work. Shiraz works. I like to drink Brunello with my Indian food, as long as it’s not too spicy.
Do you drink much Indian wine? Do you think it will take off stateside?
I think it will eventually. Indian wine is still pretty new. When I was growing up there, there wasn’t a lot of wine, and it was mostly fortified. It’s improved tremendously. The palate in India is so different than it is here, so a lot of the wines are made for that palate. Plus, it’s a new culture. It takes time for them to learn how to make it and how to transport it. But I serve some of the Sula Vineyards wines at my restaurant.