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Graffiti: Brilliant Culinary Scribbles

The brainchild of ‘celebrity chef’ Jehangir Mehta, Graffiti offers each diner an inspired and inspiring culinary experience based not just on the quality of the food but also on the quality of the entire indulgent package. Mehta’s jewelbox of a restaurant on E. 10th Street can best be described as colorful and eclectic.

The tiny interior seats just 22 diners at 4 wooden communal tables; chintzy chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, casting soft light over the space; a hodge-podge of Indian art, Buddha statues, and Americana add a shabby chic vibe to the homespun decor. You better hope you’re not seated next to a loudmouth or a gym rat, as narrow tables with 6 seats each make for very cramped quarters. The food’s so good though, just grin and bear the potentially awkward accidental footsie with strangers.

The diverse small plates menu has been carefully and lovingly created. Each dish is painstakingly layered with complimentary salty, sweet, and savory flavors to maximize taste. The only real theme is that of originality. Chef Mehta blends Eastern and Western flavors, techniques, and textures to construct modern culinary masterpieces. No detail is left unnoticed, unevaluated. Divided into three sections, the menu offers shared plates for $7, $12, and $15, all of which are presented tapas-style.

My friend Diana and I sampled five dishes, seeking diversity in our selections (not a difficult task). We started with the pickled ginger scallops – roughly sliced, doused with pickled ginger shavings and juice, and paired with both candied red chilis and crispy herbed flatbread, these scallops teased my palate both texturally and in terms of taste. They were soft and rich, slightly chewy, and complemented by the crunchy flatbread; the ginger and spicy chilis added significant zest to the plump and mellow scallop meat. Next came the meal’s ultimate highlight: the zucchini hummus pizza.

A personal-sized pie of crispy flaky flatbread dough topped with a ‘sauce’ of spicy homemade hummus, razor thin slices of zucchini, and generous helpings of crushed wasabi peas, this plate was a prime study in usual married flavors working in harmony. Spicy, savory, crunchy: this dish is addictive and worth much gastro-swooning.

Following the ‘pizza’ was the chickpea-crusted skate with a mint yogurt sauce. The skate was pounded thin and baked in a thick chickpea breading – it was so moist and delicate that you could tear it to pieces without a knife. Mellow and luxurious, the skate filet paired beautifully with the sharp and cooling mint yogurt, a thick sauce that coats your mouth pleasingly. The last savory dish was the wildly popular braised pork buns. Stuffed with star anise and cumin-flected pork that had been braised for 6 hours, these impossibly soft and fluffy buns were real crowd-pleasers, ordered by most dining groups. While (surprisingly) not my favorite dish of the evening, these pork buns are clearly Chef Mehta’s indulgence of current trends and while uncharacteristic of his avant-garde tendencies, they work just oh so well.

Considering Chef Mehta’s original culinary calling was desserts, you would have to be daft not to sample at least one of his three sweet offerings. Diana and I, on the recommendation of our server, opted for the Hazelnut Espresso Cupcake with Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. Moistened with frangelico, the hazelnut cake was soft, moist, and delightfully nutty (and shows every crappy cupcake maker like Magnolia Bakery who’s boss). The sweet and slippery chocolate icing was toughened up with ‘espresso caviar,’ slightly chewy little balls of espresso and rice. By far the best part of the dish though was the homemade ‘chocolate chip’ ice cream – a rich chocolate base with shredded dark chocolate, Mehta’s version puts Brigham’s and Haagen Daaz to shame.

Mehta works hard to challenge you and to reward your efforts. His food is complex, innovative, and varied; it turns contemporary dining on its head with pleasantly unpretentious service, truly tasty and accessible cuisine, and forward-thinking. Graffiti brings fine dining to a level where the food is able to shine (very) brightly without the distractions of fancy clothes, silver platters, snooty hostesses, and hidden ‘celebrity’ chefs. If you’re willing to forgo the comforts of your own dining table and to suffer through bumping elbows with strangers, Chef Mehta will surely deliver (oftentimes himself) one of the better meals you’ll have this year.

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