If you’ve never tried food cooked in a tandoor, drop what you are doing and immediately head to the Bristol waterfront. DeWolf Tavern chef Sai Viswanath uses one to conjure New England cuisine that gives subtle nods to his Indian homeland. “New England from the perspective of Sai,” he calls it.
A tandoor is an insulated clay cylindrical oven that curves inward towards the top. The open flame at the bottom heats the vessel to a blistering 900 degrees. While the fire eventually dies down, the heat, held in by the clay, remains constant.
The environment of the tandoor prepares food by smoking, convection, and radiant heat methods. This unique triumvirate cooks food fast while retaining its moisture. Meat, for example, cooks in the belly of the tandoor near the direct fire. Naan, an unleavened Indian bread, is slapped against the sides at the top to bake. Tandoors cook quickly and impart a charred, smoky flavor to food.
DeWolf’s menu fuses food from both Viswanath’s home and adopted countries: Naan pizzas, salmon blackened with Mediterranean spices, and lobster, all roasted in the tandoor.
“The spices are not new to New England,” he continues. “We just did a prosciutto-wrapped cod with a sweet potato chourico. The chourico is seasoned paprika and I add cumin and coriander to the sweet potato. These are complementary flavors. I just highlight them.”
After studying culinary arts in Madras, India, Viswanath came to the US at the age of 24 to learn about food “from the best.” While attending the Culinary Institute of America, he worked under acclaimed Chef Michael Romano at famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café in New York City.
“It was an intense kitchen,” Viswanath says. “Watching how Danny put a team together, how he was able to encourage us to perform at our highest level, and how he had so much passion for the entire restaurant experience. That was inspiring.”
The lessons of his mentor paid off. In 2019, Viswanath bought out his original partners, who were retiring, and is now sole owner of the restaurant. “It’s a beautiful canvas,” he says as we walk through the stunning stone-and-beam 1818 warehouse that features a working fireplace and harbor views.
And can we talk about the several James Beard Award nominations? The unassuming chef waves his hand. “I cook food for my neighborhood, not New York,” he says. “I am cooking for the people who live here. Seeing my guests eat, that’s more validating than any award.”
For Viswanath, it all begins and ends with the people at his tables. “I think, now, a restaurant has to be an extension of people’s dining rooms. That’s what we are modeling. You can come, sit by the fire, and talk to your friend for three hours over a glass of wine.”
DeWolf Tavern • 259 Thames Street, Bristol