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The pressure’s been on Floyd Cardoz since his return to his adopted homeland in New York fresh off the success of Mumbai’s Bombay Canteen. This time, he’s staking his claim with pao. 

The Tablas Have Turned

Paowalla, which opened late last month to much buzz in Soho, isn’t a new version of Bombay Canteen or even the erstwhile Tabla, Cardoz’s high end NYC Indian eatery. It’s built on the same principle, though: the use of fresh local ingredients to change the way people consume Indian cuisine.

The Indian food scene in New York has grown since Tabla shut in 2010, and Paowalla’s more casual, experimental menu reflects that. Say hello to small plates inspired by Cardoz’s Goan roots, light and fresh with beautifully meshed flavors - and not a butter chicken or saag paneer in sight.

We begin our evening with the spicy Kachumber Kooler cocktail, a grown-up version of gin and tonic with cucumber and a pinch of chili that gives the drink a refreshing, pore-clearing kick. Haldi High Ball, another gin concoction made with turmeric and lime, fails to hit the right notes, alas, but we do enjoy our Old Fashioned made with hints of clove.

Cocktails are disappointingly watery (especially at $15 a pop), but dutifully set the stage for the main event by offering traces of Indian flair in an unexpected setting. The opening food menu offers incredibly crunchy pakoras made with shishitos rather than Indian chilis, a dish that bears a striking resemblance to chaat; as our dining companion says — it’s like Maharashtrian ussal in a shishito pepper. Coconut milk and Goan-spiced baked crab and pork ribs vindaloo, both influenced by Cardoz’s Portuguese family, have us scraping our plates. The ribs melt off the bone and the rich, flavorful vindaloo sauce allow the taste of pork to come through without being overwhelmed.

Flaky banana leaf-wrapped skate fish from Kerala keep the coastal flavors alive - on the night of our dinner it certainly seems to be the crowd favourite. Hyderabadi eggplant reaches further into the Indian heartland for inspiration, and delivers with balanced flavours of peanut and lemon. Bombay Canteen regulars will be pleased to find their Gulab Nut dessert on the menu, although we highly recommend the creamy vanilla-bean kulfi with raspberry syrup.

Bread In The Bone

Now, let's talk about the pao. Word has it that Cardoz’s Indian team spent a considerable amount of time perfecting the restaurant’s eponymous ingredient, up until now a native of Mumbai and Goa. While good pao is usually warm and soft with a crispy exterior—and a slight tang—the pao at Paowalla disappoints. It’s served cold and crusty, and reminds us of dinner rolls.

Paowalla duly pays obeisance to hipness: the restaurant is centered around a large wood-fired oven, with which the chef bakes a range of bread — including a holdover from Tabla, the bacon-stuffed naan. Two weeks in, the restaurant is packed on a Wednesday night.  Cardoz has been in the industry long enough and knows how to work a room, chatting up customers for feedback and keeping a careful eye on the floor plan. We have few complaints to make to him, except for the pao on which this house was built.

Getting there: Paowalla, 195, Spring Street, SoHo, dinner for three with drinks costs  $237.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

This review was contributed by Ami Cholia.

Image credit: @gourmandj on Instagram

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