Given the "Worth It" rating from the NY Times, it was easy to rally a group of hungry enthusiasts to join me at Navaratna for lunch last week. Navaratna is the newest Indian restaurant in the ever expanding dining scene in downtown Stamford. This packed lunch spot is unique in that it features Southern Indian cuisine that is strictly vegetarian (and certified Kosher). As a lover of Indian food, I was intrigued, and we descended upon Navaratna to explore its distinctive menu.
We debated eating outside at one of their 8-10 sidewalk tables, but despite the umbrellas, the heat prevailed and we enjoyed the simple, comfortable, dining room instead. An open kitchen in the back was a welcome distraction for the children in our group and for those interested in learning more about how to prepare any of the menu's unique dishes.
As it turned out, the owner was also one of our servers, and he patiently elaborated on the menu descriptions. We requested medium heat for our choices and were pleased that all of our dishes were spiced fully without being scorching.
Historically, Southern Indian cuisine boasts plenty of vegetarian dishes as many Hindus are non-meat eaters. Coconuts grow in abundance, consequently, grated coconut and coconut milk are widely used in curries and other preparations. A large array of spices have been produced and traded for thousands of years in this area. Most common spices are black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, tamarind, cumin and garlic. As the dining room filled to maximum capacity, these aromatic spices wafted through the air teasing us as we waited patiently for the meal to begin.
We ordered four appetizers to start. The Hara Bahara Kebab was an instant crowd pleaser and we promptly ordered a second plate. These bright green patties, a blend of cooked potatoes and chopped spinach, were lightly browned and oozing with paneer cheese. Green chili, coriander and ginger contributed to this mixture, making it one of our favorites. Sticking with the green theme, we moved on to a generous plate of Gobi Malligai, crispy cauliflower marinated with mint and cilantro. This lightly fried brightly flavored appetizer was lively with green herbs, and made for tasty finger food. The Medu Vada, described on the menu as lentil doughnuts with onion, ginger and green chili, was less compelling, tasting slightly bland and doughy to our western palates. Some research revealed that these are traditional snack foods that incorporate very finely ground ingredients to form a flour. We did however enjoy the two sauces that accompanied them, a cardamom flecked coconut puree and a tart tamarind based red dip. Both packed a flavorful punch in contrast to the starchy discs. Bright yellow round patties called Kanchipuram idli came next, another traditional breakfast and snack food. They are lower in fat and nutritious due to their steamed preparation and use of rice flour and ground lentils. These discs are served with sambal, a commonly used, lightly spiced sauce, and were very well received by the kids in our midst. After this carbohydrate heavy appetizer course, we were glad to dig into the crisp Shatwar Sprout Salad, a generous mound of chopped tomatoes, lightly blanched asparagus and a load of crunchy bean sprouts. Finished with a simple dressing of chopped herbs and lemon juice, this salad was fresh, nicely textured, and flavorful.
There are five choices on the menu under Mumbai Street Chaat Wala. We opted for the Dahi Aloo Poori, delicate, mini pastry shells overflowing with a delicious gently seasoned blend of chickpeas and potatoes, topped with plain yogurt and brightly flavored tamarind sauce. The chilled ingredients were both refreshing and jewel-like as they nestle in this handmade vessel. This unique traditional snack is worth a sample.
Choosing a Dosa from the list of 12 Dosa Delights was no easy task. We landed on the Paneer Spring Onion Dosa, a pancake filled with a crumbly mixture of house made cottage cheese and bright green scallions. The rice batter for the Dosa is poured onto a griddle, like a crepe, and then filled and rolled. This breakfast-y dish was simple but enjoyable.
We thought we had made our token Dosa selection when we spotted Pondicherry Dosa under House Specials. We couldn’t pass on this dramatic, over sized, crispy rice pancake gently folded once over an appealing pile of seasoned mashed potatoes, onions and split peas. The classic turmeric, mustard seed and other spices rendered this mash bright yellow and delicious. Coconut chutney and sambhar, a stewed blend of tomatoes and shallots perky with tamarind, cloves and cinnamon provided zesty dipping options.
Excited to move on to the curries, we chose one from the South and two from the Northern region of India. The Southern style Ennai Kathrikai was a flavor packed and spicy blend of curried baby eggplant cooked in tamarind, peanut and sesame sauce. The Dewani Handi curry was a mild and pleasing blend of spinach, eggplant, broccoli and herbs. This Indian comfort food was the most gently seasoned dish we tried and one of the favorites of our group. For a textural change, we enjoyed a bowl of Chana Masala, perfectly simmered, sweet and fragrant chickpeas moistened in a sauce of chopped onions and tomatoes. I could have eaten the entire bowl.
Ready to get back to our carbo-loading, we tried two of the six breads that were offered, and admired the whole wheat Poori Masala that arrived dramatically puffed along side a bowl of bright yellow peas and salty cooked potatoes. The Veechu Paratha is a layered, dense bread, substantial enough to support any of the sauces or side dishes, with a rich croissant-like mouthfeel.
Finally, we approached dessert with an unspoken sense of obligation (CTbites contributors never resist a proper finish to any meal). We chose the Kulfi, an Indian style ice cream. Kulfi is more dense than Western ice cream since it is not whipped. It takes a long time to melt, allowing the dramatic presentation to be savored. Bright green pistachio ice cream, a blend of finely ground almonds and cashews in addition to the dominant pistachios, arrived as six bite size triangles under a transparent layer of pretty pink vermicelli noodles. The rose syrup used to color and flavor these strands of decorative topping were an unexpected, delightful and refreshing treat after a large meal. Like everything else at Navaratna, the ice cream is house-made and presented with pride by the helpful and polite serving staff.
Navaratna is located at 133 Atlantic Street in Stamford. Call 203-348-2376 for reservations.