For the two years I have lived in New York I have always been intrigued by Vatan. A vegetarian indian restaurant sitting on third ave directly next to the hell that is Tonic, Vatan always seemed to be a bit mysterious. Maybe it was the fact that renovations kept it closed for a good portion of these years or maybe more so because of the deliciously eclectic menu they serve in what I had only heard was a whimsical ambiance. With all the restaurant information online, it’s rare I walk into a place unaware of their menu and the $31 prix fixe menu (all you can eat) consisting of a multitude of Indian dishes served all to everyone is completely consistent with how I enjoy Indian cuisine. But I was very concerned going in because of all the recent poor reviews I read on a number of the restaurant review websites. I was prepared to be let down and to only wish I had traveled down to Raj Mahal instead. But I was overwhelmingly surprised with our meal.
The ambiance is really different. Unlike the vast majority of restaurants that pack you in like a can of sardines to maximize their customer base, Vatan has a bi-level seating arrangment with a ton of open space leaving you to enjoy your meal with your other guests. The lighting is darker than you’d expect but it is lit up by a giant purple lit Ganesha (I believe I’m correct on this one). All in all, as you dine with your shoes flipped to the side, you don’t feel like you are in the city, and that is always appreciated.
The food is served almost immediately starting with the appetizers. As I mentioned the menu consists of a multitude of vegetarian indian dishes and each guest is served a small portion of everything on a cafeteria like platter. I’ll admit the immediateness of the service reminds you that the food has probably been made in large portions and is sitting in the back waiting, but that was quickly erased when I started eating. The highlights of the platter for me were the fried hot peppers with garam masala and a really interesting fried pastry filled with a yogurt and potato sauce called Sev Puri. Each of the components had the strong flavors so loved in Indian Cuisine and the portions were much larger than necessary.
This I think was the most interesting part of my experience. So many of the reviews I had read commented on how the portions were too small. The thing is, the plates are provided giving you a small sample of each. The point isn’t to walk in and order an appetizer and an entree. It is to enjoy the variety and those reviewers complaining about this clearly suffered from a mistake in expectation.
As we received our entree portion (offered in mild, medium, and spicy) I was already a bit on the full side. But the dishes served during this course were just as enjoyable as the appetizers. The lentil soup and the cauliflower and green pea dish really stood out in my mind as the best. The entrees were pretty typical of what you would expect from Indian Cuisine but nevertheless, the execution and the variety was once again fantastic. I’m not really sure how people are capable of ordering more (it is all you can eat) because I was beyond full before the dessert showed up.
Luckily the dessert platter was much smaller consisting of a small cup of amazing chai tea, along with some mango ice cream and what we were told was “made from lentils”. Everything was fantastic and the lentil dessert was really interesting. Almost like a sweet lentil fritter. I’m not sure how I finished it all, but I did.
Honestly, I really enjoyed this place. With all the negative reviews of late and the higher than usual price for Indian food, I was expecting disappointment. But therein lies the problem with reviews. Sure, if you want good Indian food for cheap, Vatan is not for you, but if you are looking for an interesting environment to enjoy a whole bunch of variety than is $31 all that bad. We go out to eat for the experience not just the food and I was thrilled with our experience. That being said, Vatan is probably an occasion restaurant. I think I’ll stick to Raj Majal for my regular Indian fixes.