33 W. 8th St
(betw. 5th & 6th Aves.)
Improbably located on the West Village’s ever-dingy West Eighth Street, Elettaria has a charm and earnestness that has been missing from too many establishments content to coast by on outrageous prices, celebrity chefs and lazy trendiness. Elettaria is also somewhat guilty of those exact crimes; but like a player who knows just what to say to make you forgive him, it often comes throughcomes through every now and then with a genuine delight.
Housed in the former 8th Wonder, where Jimi Hendrix was once a mere backup musician, the stage has been transformed into an open kitchen, taking the modern notion of chefs as the new rock stars too literally. Much like Hendrix when he worked the club, Chef Akhtar Nawab is not yet a rock-star chef, but there’s certainly star-quality talent.
A majority of Elettaria’s entrées are priced over $20, their cocktails will run you at least $12 and a special porterhouse steak for two rings up at a whopping $85, so it may seem strange to consider the restaurant economical. But in a city where a thoughtlessly mixed bourbon-and-Coke at any bar can cost $8, I’ll gladly shell out the extra bucks for these artfully mixed drinks from veterans of cocktail-enthusiast hotspots Death & Co. and Freemans. And since the best dishes are the relatively inexpensive options, you can get a love buzz on without putting a dent in your wallet.
Love goes smoother with champagne and roses, so it’s no surprise that those flavors, with a pisco sour interpolation, provides the Electric Ladyland ($12) with the giddy effervescence of teenage crushes. In line with the “spice-driven” approach of the restaurant, cocktails also incorporate spices and herbs, from Chai-infused bourbon to a splendid pineapple, sage and honey margarita ($12) named after Rita Hayworth (whose real name was Margarita—a level of attention to detail that makes me swoon).
The cocktail menu also inexplicably offers a few Tiki drinks, using original post–World War II recipes. The Zombie Punch ($14) is a potent mix of three rums and absinthe, and the Ancient Mariner ($12) replaces the similar Mai Tai with a palate-cleansing allspice kiss at the end, making every sip feel like the first.
Whatever elixir you flirt with, though, you’ll fall for the first courses. The restaurant’s namesake is the Latin word for cardamom, a common ingredient in Indian cooking, and the cuisine continues in a similar fashion by turning out jazzy multi-culti riffs on traditional Indian dishes. Curried rabbit samosas ($10) arrive with a coconut paste dubbed “sambar,” though sambar is actually a stew often made with tamarind, which shows up on the plate elsewhere as vinaigrette. The enchanting crab resala ($14) employs a light turmeric-onion soubise instead of a more traditional resala sauce, and is topped with fried nuggets of pâte à choux dubbed “gnocchi,” which have happily doubled in size over time. Kona Kanpachi ($11) and its tangy jackfruit sauce is unfortunately no match for the ill-advised smoked peanuts that dot the plate. The fried quail and egg ($11), exchanging the pomegranate molasses it once proffered for simple greens, is moist and heavenly, sparking a sense memory of the first time I tasted fried chicken—you never forget your first fried chicken. Forgivee the clumsy come-ons of those smoked peanuts, and and we’re dealing with a serious restaurant crush.
Then the entrées arrive, and Elettaria and I have our first disagreement. The playful take on mattar paneer ($18), remixed here with ricotta malfatti, recalls those affectionate first courses, but it’s hardly substantial enough to be called a second course. The use of foie gras, which is not only on the regular menu but seems to show up on the specials every evening, amounts to lazily trying to dazzle with flashy gifts. (Admittedly, the foie gras with saffron cotton candy special was an especially dazzling trinket.)
Desserts ($7) aren’t Elettaria’s strongest attributes, which they seem aware of since only one dessert remains unchanged: rosewater-scented doughnuts with a lovely Chai gelato. My companions enjoyed coconut tapioca pudding, but I can’t comment as to how it fares with its makeover of lime-cilantro gelato and banana fritter. I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do tapioca pudding.
With 12 cocktails, 11 appetizers, six entrée options and four desserts on the regular menu, it’s easy to get the impression that what Elettaria really wants to be is a cocktail joint that serves some wonderful small plates. Since a lasting relationship is impossible unless both parties stay true to themselves, it’d be better off for everyone if it followed its heart.