The single best clam pie I ever tasted wasn’t pulled from a custom brick oven somewhere in Brooklyn; it came from the kitchen of Floyd Cardoz, the Mumbai-raised, Swiss-educated, Top Chef Masters-winning, New Jersey-residing New York chef who died on Wednesday at the age of 59.
Cardoz debuted the pie in 2012 at North End Grill, the now-closed modern American restaurant he ran with Danny Meyer. The simplicity of the dish belied its subtleties. The bread exhibited a wafer-like crispness. The clams were assertively saline. The chiles lent a soft kick. And on at least one visit, Cardoz substituted the typical parsley with cilantro, an uncommon addition that channeled South Asia or South America more than Italy or the U.S. The grassy perfume softened the oceanic aromas.
Pete Wells, in his New York Times review, said the shellfish pie was so good it might’ve bested the heralded one at Franny’s. For me, it was more than that: It became the version against which I’d compare every other clam pizza I’d ever have.
Cardoz’s chief legacy was making space for modern Indian fare within the pantheon of New York fine dining. But I recount the pizza anecdote to highlight a larger truth about the late chef: He rarely let himself be bound by tradition, be it that of his native cuisine or his adopted ones. This was particularly true of Tabla, which opened in 1998 as part of Danny Meyer’s then-nascent empire, and which helped pave the way for a contemporary class of creative and expensive South Asian spots like Indian Accent and Junoon.
“My food (like my life) is a fusion of many different cuisines and cultures, with subtle Indian accents,” Cardoz wrote in his Flavorwalla cookbook. At the fine dining temple that was Lespinasse, where Cardoz was a sous chef, the late chef Grey Kunz reportedly called him “Spicy Man.” Cardoz said he liked the term (I don’t, and that’s an understatement), but added that “the narrow focus on spices is a little misleading. My cooking is about all the flavors I use, not the just spices.”
Writer Ruth Reichl understood Cardoz. “This is American food, viewed through a kaleidoscope of Indian spices,” the then-New York Times critic wrote of Tabla in 1999. It was a time when New Yorkers were more accustomed to seeing South Asian fare at a casual lunch buffet than at a prix-fixe restaurant with supplements. Those societal preconceptions likely prompted the following line in Reichl’s review: “Those who do not like Tabla tend to dislike it with a passion.” She described a dining companion who pushed away his tamarind-laced wild mushroom soup, calling it “horrible.” Reichl countered that sentiment smartly. “I have learned to ignore the people who do not like Tabla,” she wrote, and awarded it three stars.
I reminisce about Tabla with other food writers the way cinematic car chase buffs wax poetic about Ronin; it was a restaurant that was critically celebrated yet somehow underappreciated by the masses — at least in its later years. I often hung out with a banker buddy downstairs at the so-called “Bread Bar,” where Cardoz took traditional kulcha bread and stuffed it with about as much bacon as a bodega BLT.
When venues like GupShup sling okra-spiked guacamole, or when Alex Stupak offers pastrami tacos, it’s hard not to see in them the pioneering work of Cardoz, whose Tabla set a strong precedent for letting cuisines viewed as cheap and traditional expand into more innovative and expensive realms.
Alas, Tabla had a tough time filling its 283-seats, and it became Meyer’s first major closure, shuttering at the end of 2010. Cardoz brought his globalist flavor palette to North End Grill in 2012, serving up bacon shrimp burgers with spice dusted fries alongside fancy French turbot, but he eventually left there too, and went on to helm a Tribeca spot by celebrity bros Dave Zinczenko and Dan Abrams that’s not worth dwelling upon.
For a while, Cardoz enjoyed a mid-career renaissance at his own Paowalla, which he opened in 2016. The Soho restaurant sold stellar Tibetan tingmos, honey lime croissants, and wada pao sandwiches. It was one of the city’s finest places to eat bread; indeed, Cardoz later rebranded it as Bombay Bread Bar. But it was also a cool hangout for Tabla-style cross-cultural experiments. He made pecan chai sticky buns. He brought back the bacon kulcha. And he gave new life to the ubiquitous curd that is burrata, using it to soften the cumin-y sting of daal.
But truth be told, my favorite thing about Cardoz’s Soho restaurant was Cardoz himself. He usually recognized me, and ignored standard procedure about not conversing with critics in the dining room. On a few occasions at Bombay Bread Bar he would, I’d estimate, spend an eighth of my dinner standing next to me, chatting about the origins of a Sino-Indian dish, his regular travels to Goa, or, surely, the sad state of the New York Giants.
Cardoz, who died in New Jersey, had tested positive for COVID-19, CNN reported. At the time of his death he was a partner at three Mumbai-based venues: the Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, and Bombay Sweet Shop.
One can remember the chef for his countless achievements and culinary milestones; I’ve been writing about him for over a decade and I have no doubt I’ll be citing his legacy in the years to come. But most of all, right now, I miss that kind person chatting me up at the bar, a Jersey guy who knew how to make one hell of a clam pizza.