One of the great things about New York’s restaurant scene is its diversity. You don’t have to look very far to find seductive fare from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa — not to mention New Orleans, Cape Cod and Texas.
So why is it that when you’re looking for lunch in Midtown Manhattan, so many places these days expect you to create your own meal — as if the chef left the premises as soon as he checked the supply of leftovers. You see more and more of these operations: a steam-table lineup offering meat, vegetables, salad makings, sauces and dressings that are spooned over greens or rice or into a wrap. You walk along an assembly line of servers, instructing them in stages and supervising as your meal is assembled and packaged.
You put away your wallet and then you’re out the door, holding a big paper bag and swelling with pride over the balanced yet “creative” lunch that was made just for you in about seven seconds.
Later, you realize the stuff in those stainless steel tubs may be labeled Lebanese, Cajun, Korean or Mexican, but it all tends to take on a uniform taste and appearance. Rather than dazzling you with variety, the goal increasingly seems to be to keep the line moving and keep down costs while creating the illusion that you are eating something exotic, healthy and customized.
Which brings me to Hot Clay Oven, an “Indian fusion grill” that just opened on Third Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets, and the second in an aspiring mini-chain (the original is downtown).
Here’s how the restaurant’s Web site puts it: “We cater to all different palates, whether you have spicy, medium or mild inclinations. You begin your adventure by constructing your very own flavorful, Indian inspired fusion meal with your choice of only our finest ingredients. We believe in farm raised and natural food products, which are environmentally friendly. Our food is always fresh, never frozen, and preservative-free.”
Here’s how I see it: Successive groupings of stainless steel tubs containing, for the most part, very familiar foodstuffs, waiting to be put together in very familiar ways.
In the first batch of tubs you’ll find cubes of vaguely Indian-spiced chicken cubes, vaguely Caribbean-inspired “Jamaican steak” cubes and “pork vindaloo.” There are also a few vegetarian choices: channa masala (a spicy chickpea stew), yellow dahl (stewed yellow lentils) and paneer (cubes of Indian cheese). Each of these “proteins” can be spooned over a skimpy bed of romaine lettuce or a more generous mound of herbed rice or tightly rolled into a fat wrap for a main course costing $8.04. Dishes come in clear plastic bowls; an e-mail inquiry about the bowls’ biodegradability or recyclability went unanswered.
In the second batch of tubs sit various other goodies that can be spooned onto your rice or salad bowl or into your wrap, including chopped tomato, grated carrot, shredded cheese, green peas, sautéed peppers and onions and slivered red onion. Raisins, roasted nuts and a tasty mango salsa are considered “premium toppings” that cost 92 cents each. Finally, you choose a dressing — ranging from “creamy ranch” to various chutneys — to be squirted on top of the toppings.
At last, here’s what Hot Clay Oven does well: Everything seems to be cooked on the premises; it is a pleasure to see naan (flat bread; $1.84 to $2.53) made one at a time by an actual human, in an authentic tandoor— they are baked in batches, so try to get one right out of the oven— and sauces are simmered and chicken breast and steak seasoned and grilled right in front of the customers. The meat dishes, in particular, are quite lean.
I would go back for the tandoori chicken cubes over herbed rice, topped with raisins, green peas and red onion, all dressed with a yogurt, mint and lime chutney. The chicken was nicely spiced and the accompaniments provided a savory chorus of backup flavors, even though the chicken is cooked on a grill rather than in the tandoori. This dish partners well with a mango lassi (a yogurt-mango drink, $2.53) or “melonade” (a drink based on watermelon juice, $1.84).
Here’s what Hot Clay Oven does less well: The limited seating and tables seem cheap and shaky. My least favorite meal there was a Jamaican steak wrap; the steak spicing was barely Jamaican in character and cooked too well done, which dried out and toughened it. The pork vindaloo was more like everyday New York pulled pork, although with maybe a little more hot pepper — nothing Indian about it. A vegetable samosa was filled with a mush that could not be identified as the potatoes and peas specified on the menu. A masala chai latte ($2.07) was way too sweet and all the spices mingled at the bottom of the cup.
Worst of all, the wait staff, while otherwise helpful and pleasant, stuck blindly to the rules when confronting a needy customer — myself. One refused repeated pleas for a glass of water (“We don’t give glasses,” she said, although bottled water goes for $2.53); another was bored by my complaint that I had been charged 92 cents for raisins despite its listing as a “free” topping on the menu board above the counter. The price was changed after the menu was hung, and I should have been informed, I was told. Some customers are never right, I guess.
To its credit, Hot Clay Oven can deliver a fairly tasty low-fat affordable meal. But don’t get the idea that this is creative “fusion” fare or even actual Indian food. If you want that, go around the corner to the East Side branch of Minar, at 160 E. 44th Street, where homemade-tasting curries and biriyanis with naan and rice start at $7 and first-rate dosas go for $5 to $8.
Hot Clay Oven is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It is located at 708 3rd Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets. (212) 599-7650.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.