TAWA: Indian Fusion in Stamford

Sarah Green

"Please, can we go for Indian?" I often implore. Yet my pleas usually fall on deaf ears as a large majority of my peeps find Indian cuisine just too heavy or just too spicy or just too Indy. Yet I think the perfect solution has finally surfaced with what I'll call "Indian Fusion." It's the trendy and very "very" new Indian restaurant in Stamford, TAWA. Head chef and owner, Kausik Roy, a native of Mumbai, says that he wanted to open a "...very different type of Indian restaurant that draws on a deep respect of food tradition and a love for breaking food rules..." -  and he has certainly succeeded.

Taking a giant leap of faith in these tough financial times, Roy has expanded from his tiny spot on a very traffic- heavy area of High Ridge Road in Stamford (with NO parking to speak of) to open his new restaurant in the very busy and "happening" area of downtown Summer Street (211 Summer Street, also in Stamford, to be precise.) It's hustle and bustle outside on the street. But inside, the mood is warm and cozy. Downstairs, one can relax at the Bread Bar, where the cuisine is basically Indian tapas with the addition of a GREAT view into the kitchen and the Tandoori ovens. Magic is made in these fiery hot vats where the most delicious Naan (Indian flatbread that is a MUST HAVE to go with all the glorious sauces) as well as many other types of Indian dishes are baked and puffed.  You can spend the evening here at the Bread Bar, sipping on some outrageous Martinis and ordering all kinds of "small plates," including  papadam, kebabs, fried calamari, and wraps made from your choice of classic Indian breads. Imagine a Tandoor grilled vegetable kebab wrapped in a freshly baked Roti. How about fresh chicken kebab blanketed in paper thin Roomali bread? There are delicious small dishes to choose from down here, made all the more appetizing by the vista of chefs stirring and mixing and the complex aromas that waft beneath your nostrils.  If you are simply waiting for your table, at least order yourself a " Slum Dog" - a potent blend of gin, cilantro and lime. Finish this off and time seems to simply float away!

Once your table is ready, head upstairs where the decor is unquestionably Indian, subtle and sublime. The floors are embossed and there is a very dramatic chandelier which seems to coat the glasses on the table in a sparkling bath of light. (Or perhaps that was just the lingering effects of my Slum Dog!") Now, order a " Hot Tava," if you dare, which is an incredibly powerful martini made with pepper vodka and jalapeno juice. It is super spicy and super dirty! You've heard people talk about cleansing the palette before the next course? This martini gives clorox a run for its money! But don't worry if spice is not your thing as TAWA offers many amazing cocktails that will suit even the shyest taste buds. Two real standouts were the Hara Bara martini with lots of kiwi pulp floating within and the Watermelon Ginger Mojito which was out of this world!

Now that you're completely soused, peruse the menu with the help of the friendly and extremely helpful wait staff. I was there with three others so we were able to sample quite a few appetizers. The papadam were crunchy and peppery with the three traditional sauces to go with: savory mango, spicy cilantro, and sweet/hot tamarind. Our waiter then suggested we try the sauteed calamari in a tomato and sweet pepper sauce, which was tasty yet super mild. We also ordered the ARTIHCOKE PAKORA which was delicious and served with a scrumptious eggplant dipping sauce. Another favorite was the TAWA CHAT, a thick and chunky salsa-like concoction of corn, asparagus, red onion, tomato, and mint. Corn and asparagus in Indian cuisine? A perfect example of Roy breaking the rules while still following the traditions that make Indian cuisine famous. The Chat is served in a bowl that looks as if it has been laid on its side, giving the impression that the food wants you to eat it, as it seems to yearn for the scoop of your spoon. My favorite, though, was the PANI PURI,  a classic Indian "street dish," as our waiter described it.  Here, bite-sized, crunchy flour shells are stuffed with a spiced potato mixture. The waiter comes around to each diner and pours cold tamarind water into the shell to coat the inside. Then, pop it into your mouth and enjoy - crackling and tangy. For me, this dish truly epitomizes what makes Indian cuisine so complex and mysterious - a frantic array of spices and textures that seem to dance on your tongue.

Next on our agenda - the main courses.  TAWA, naturally, has the standard Indian fare -  the Chicken Tikka Masala, sauteed to perfection in TAWA'S not-too-creamy cream and tomato sauce, was delightful. But we wanted to go Westport "wild" and try some of the less familiar dishes. As a HUGE leap of faith, I decided to order Roy's signature dish, KARARI BHINDI or Crispy Okra. (There are so few foods that I HATE and Okra happens to be one of them. Beets, mango and raisins are the others, don't ask!) I learned from the TAWA website that Roy also hated Okra as a child and that, in fact, it was his refusal to eat okra the traditional way that was one of the major catalysts in his decision to become a chef. And so, the okra arrived. And it was spectacular. Wonderfully crunchy and decidedly NOT slimy, this was Okra in all its glory.  Laced with cilantro, green chili and red onion, this dish was the surprise of the evening. Also of note were the SAAG PANEER (creamed spinach dotted with cottage cheese and spiced with garlic and onion) and the BAINGAN BHARTA (charcoal grilled minced eggplant bathed in cilantro and just a hint of mint.) Again, the perfect Indian bread is a MUST as you won't want to miss a drop of the exquisite sauces that each of the dishes offer. My preference is always the simple NAAN bread because i hate to drown out the flavor of the sauce with an overpowering or super spiced conduit. But my friends wanted to try GARLIC NAAN and so (go ahead, twist my arm!) we did. It was hot and garlicky and lightly buttered to perfection. How does the old adage go? "Once you gar-lac, you never go back" or am I paraphrasing?

TAWA and I are by NO MEANS through. I feel I must return very soon to try some of the other great looking items on the menu. I'm no lightweight when it comes to Indian and I really MUST try the FIVE VHILI PHALL which is described on the menu as " the hottest curry this side of the Atlantic. Bring it on! I think I'll stay away from the goat option, but the lamb sounds good. (I'm always partial to Baa over Maa.) We didn't have time or any room left in our bellies to try the GRILLED SEABASS MOILEE which is coated in a coconut glaze and served over tamarind rice. We eyed it longingly on another table. And I MUST go back to order some TIGER SHRIMP that are grilled with garlic, fenugreek leaves, and something called "HANGED YOGURT" which sounds too intriguing NOT to taste! And never forget that  TAWA'S martini menu is vast and sometimes as wild as the sea - so take a chance. Grab your life preserver and jump in!

TAWA 211 Summer Street, Stamford 203.359.8977

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