Reviews so far have been mixed, but I still had high hopes because the original Vermilion in Chicago has received several accolades since opening in 2004. Author Salman Rushdie proclaimed the original location the "best Indian restaurant I've eaten anywhere in America" and is one of the high profile backers of the NYC outpost. At Vermilion is also helmed by an all-female team (the owner, chef, and the chef de cuisine are all women). Top Chef trivia: Radhika Desai from Season 5 worked at the Chicago Vermilion for 2 1/2 years, moving up the ranks from assistant pastry chef to sous chef.
This was our first time trying Indian-Latin fusion. We were seated in the lounge because the main dining hall upstairs was hosting a private party. Our waiter explained that At Vermilion's concept follows the original spice route from India to Spain and finally to South America. A note at the top of the menu gently reminds us about the "girl power" vibe: "vermilion - the most vibrant of reds, connotes the essence and ebullience of the indian and latin american peoples, also translates into sindoor, a core symbol of indian femininity and a celebration of the beauty of women".
And then the food. Huge disappointment. Our degustation platter, a $20 tasting of 4 appetizers chosen by the chef, arrived on a giant white slab that almost covered the entire table. The size of the serving platter further emphasized how tiny the portions were (reminded me of that Citicard commercial, "It's like elf food!"). Our tasting included the mysore lamb chops (just OK), tamarind shrimp (nothing special), artichoke pakoras (blah), duck vindaloo arepa (too tiny to get any real flavor, but I did get a weird piece of non-edible spice pod in my portion). Heather's avocado "escebeche" appetizer was simply a sliced up avocado with some sauce drizzled on top.
The entrees were no better. Kris' NY strip streak showed up on another giant white slab (sorry for the terrible photos, the size of the serving platters made it so awkward to get a good pic). He said his steak was average, the sweet potatoes and apple slaw sides were uninspired, and although the dish was named "chimichurri new york strip", there was no chimichurri anywhere on the plate. At $32 we would have done better going back to Red Lobster.
My $26 Caldeirada de Peixe, a "Brazilian seafood stew with an Indian kick", arrived in a strange silver UFO-like serving bowl with zero kick, bland flavor, and missing the tomato rice. The moqueca mista at Sushi Samba is SO much better.
Maybe we should have ordered off the vegetarian menu. Heather seemed to enjoy her vegetarian thali, which included paneer makhni, chana saag, chana daal, naan, and pappadum. Chris ordered the degustation appetizer tasting as his main dish, but he specifically requested they not include the duck appetizer. But of course the platter showed up with the duck arepa, so our observant waiter quickly brought Chris a scallop appetizer on the side, explaining that the kitchen confusion was caused by the party of 200 people upstairs (but shouldn't the kitchen be able to handle a full capacity crowd on a Saturday night?).
I should have known better than to stay for dessert. But I was still hungry so I ordered what sounded like the most filling choice on the dessert menu - the "chari tukkra" (pistachio nut cake). It was warm and had a nice consistency, but had a strange cardboard aftertaste.
Kris ordered the molten chocolate cake, which was not molten in anyway. The presentation was interesting - Chris jokingly named it "the big bang theory". The non-molten cake came with a blueberry sorbet, which tasted overwhelmingly of cardamom, and some canned mandarin oranges dipped in chili powder (yuck!).
Heather and Chris shared the Vermilion Immoderation, a sampling of 3 desserts. Based on their puzzled expressions, I knew they were also dealing with some bizarre flavor combinations. The weirdest thing on their plate were these tiny ruby spheres - the flavor was unidentifiable, the texture starchy, like a molecular gastronomy experiment gone wrong.
Total damage for two people: $99 (before tax or tip) including 1 appetizer sampler, 2 entrees, 2 desserts, and 1 soda. Kris was pretty angry - for the amount of money we spent, he said it was the worst meal he's had this year. I guess the high prices are footing the bill for the cavernous 12,000 square foot space (twice the size of the original Chicago location) and to pay for supermodel hostesses to reposition the revolving door everytime someone came in the restaurant (no joke).
Before we left, our waiter asked us to fill out a comment card, but I couldn't bring myself to write anything. I probably should have said something nice about our fantastic waiter - he was knowledgeable about the menu, super attentive, and patient when we had tons of questions. Kris, worried about our waiter's job security, suggested I write "Start looking for another job!" (but that would have been mean).
The Verdict: Don't bother!
480 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10017