Fusion or Confusion?

A Dobbs Ferry newcomer serves modern Indian fare with mixed results.

If we tasted the food from two visits to Orissa with our eyes closed, we’d swear we were in two different restaurants. The first was from a sophisticated, globally inspired Indian chef and the latter from a cook stuck in some out-of-balance orbit left by the cacophonous “fusion” trend of (thankfully) years gone by.

But, of course, both experiences were in the same restaurant. We know, because we were surrounded by the same contemporary gold-and-garnet décor, served by the same charming and enthusiastic waiter, and chatted up by the same ever-present maître d’. And, to be fair, there were some decent dishes served both times, as well as those that missed the mark.

The chutneys and raitas exemplify the best of Orissa. There are untraditional versions, like the slightly sweet chunky avocado raita, an intensely tomatoey chutney made from slow-roasted tomato and mustard seeds, and one of our favorites, a raita made with beets and bits of tangy-sweet canned pineapple in a creamy yogurt base. But traditionalists need not worry: a cucumber raita tastes like the classic (although the cucumber is chunky rather than shredded), and mango chutney is thick, sweet, and musty—just like Major Grey’s. We wiped the bottoms of every bowl clean with the mint-speckled naan, which our waiter kept in good supply.

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Tandoori-spiced chicken salad, like many of Orissa’s best dishes, evoked Indian flavors in a decidedly un-Indian setting. Looking at the shredded romaine, chunks of chicken and avocado, and sliced almonds, one would not think “Indian,” but the distinctive tandoori spices on the chicken, the touch of chili heat, and the sweet lime dressing were a clear and very appealing nod eastward. Strangely, a salad that sounded more Indian—“carrot and cucumber slaw with spiced mustard dressing” with mango, radish, mint, and mustard—was aggressively salty but lacked other flavor.

Other missteps included the lamb seek kabob on the tandoori sampler, which was dry and dull, though easily saved with a quick dip in the accompanying cilantro chutney; rubbery steamed calamari served with bits of undercooked garlic; and a side dish of tasty enough sweet-and-sour asparagus that was strangely served with no tips. Our lightly spiced, juicy bison burger was delightfully topped with a cilantro aioli, but accompanied by acrid strips of deep-fried okra that crumbled unpleasantly in our mouths. The maitre d’ seemed surprised we didn’t eat it, leading us to wonder if we’d just happened to have gotten an overcooked batch.

Another odd surprise came wrapped in a banana leaf. As many times as we’ve eaten fish prepared this way, we never experienced it as tasting so pervasively like tobacco. Yet this same kitchen produced a dish as clever as it was appealing: a distinctly India “paella” made with saffron and coconut-infused basmati rice, rings of tender calamari, crisp and perfectly cooked shrimp, scallops, mussels, and chunks of tender chicken. The dish is available for two or four—but the portion for two could easily and generously serve three.

An appetizer of tamarind shrimp may not have been as clever as the paella, but it was every bit as good. Three perfectly cooked shrimp were served with just enough of the sweet and sour tamarind sauce to complement and not overwhelm the shrimp’s inherent mild flavor. Two traditionally prepared Indian entrées, chicken tikka masala and gobhi matar, were both very rich and very tasty.

Caption: Orissa’s take on paella—basmati rice, saffron, chicken, mussels, shrimp, and calamari—takes 20 minutes to prepare and may be its best dish.

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Two desserts also played on the East-meets-West idea, and both missed the mark. A coconut flan was dense and pasty, and surprisingly lacking in coconut flavor. A cardamom brownie, warm from the oven, was overwhelmed by the cardamom. And like the rest of the menu, desserts were a mixed bag. The outrageously rich rice pudding was a finale that reminded us this restaurant is as capable of producing really good food as it is of making mistakes.

Orissa ★★

14 Cedar St Dobbs Ferry  (914) 231-7800
Hours: lunch, Tues to Sun 11:30 am–2:30 pm; dinner Tues to Thurs 5:30–10 pm, Fri and Sat 5:30–11 pm, Sun 5:30–10 pm, closed Mondays.
Appetizers: $6-$15; entrées: $12-$25; desserts: $7-$8.
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
★★—Good ★—Fair

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