An Indian restaurant in downtown Stamford takes vegetarian specialties to new heights
photographs by gus cantavero
Spices scent the air at Navaratna. This casual, reasonably priced, vegetarian Indian restaurant on Atlantic Street is named after the nine ancient sacred gems—ruby, pearl, coral, emerald, yellow sapphire, diamond, blue sapphire, hessonite, and cat’s eye—but spices are the true stars here. Navaratna’s dishes sparkle with flavors of India’s great and varied geographic regions and the influences of its history and people.
The downtown location draws a happy mix of customers: businesspeople in groups, solo diners, families and couples fill the tables in the spare, understated dining room with its hardwood floors and exposed brick wall. At a recent lunch and dinner, about half the customers were from India, a good sign borne out in every well-prepared dish the chefs in the busy open kitchen had delivered to our table by a friendly and courteous staff. I could easily make a meal of the intriguing appetizers and chaat wala—street snacks of Mumbai—but I also indulged in homey, satisfying curries, breads and rice dishes. What a special treat these meals were.
We started with dishes of dumplings, doughnuts, dosas and breads. Dahi aldo poori, mini puffed fried breads topped with chickpeas, potatoes, mint, yogurt and tamarind, were crisp, light, and refreshing, and their mildness pleased our heat-sensitive dining companion. Gobi Malligai—cauliflower florets fried in a light batter and tinted green with mint and cilantro—took the humble vegetable to new heights.
We thoroughly enjoyed the vada, doughnuts made from a dough of puréed lentils, fried and delicately flecked with cumin. Navaratna offers several preparations of this specialty, including vada soaked in sambar or yogurt. We tried the medu vada, and enjoyed dipping the doughnuts into coconut-mint chutney sprinkled with cardamom seeds.
Indo-Chinese cooking—Chinese ingre-dients and techniques adapted to Indian flavors—grew from a Chinese community in Calcutta and became so popular it spread over the subcontinent. With this knowledge we tried the Vegetable Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese dish of fried dumplings made with chopped steamed vegetables and rice, dressed in a bright-red sweet-and-sour sauce perfectly redolent of garlic and ginger and sprinkled with crunchy fresh scallions. Like all the fried treats we tasted, these were fragrant with spice, and perfectly crispy and moist.
Dosas, great-big, superthin rice and lentil crepes served on a big silver platter, provided dramatic flair. We tried the masala dosa, which comes with mashed potatoes spiced with cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric and green chiles. You would think we couldn’t get enough of the dish as we tore pieces from the ends of the crisp, slightly sweet dosa to scoop up the potato and dunked each bite into the bowls of condiments—minty coconut chutney, and soupy, bold, heat-resonating sambhar.
Curries, of course, are what first come to mind when you think about Indian food. Navaratna’s menu lists them according to their regional origin. Ennai Kathrikai, meltingly soft baby eggplant cooked with a deeply flavored tamarind, peanut and sesame sauce (a South Indian dish), was studded with pods of dried red peppers yet still revealed a contrasting underlying sweetness. With it we tried two breads, veechu paratha, a rich, ghee-infused layered bread, and chapathi, a thinner whole wheat bread.
Of the North Indian curries, we tried the korma. The almond sauce was a beautiful shade of pale orange, and its mild, creamy flavor was a hit with our table. This and the southern special Allepy vegetable curry, a mustard-hued mango-coconut curry, were made with what the menu described as “assorted vegetables.” Its one off note was the thick rounds of carrot, which were overcooked.
No matter what curry you select, all come with wonderful basmati rice, cooked so that every grain is distinct. And there’s a choice of seven flavored rices. The lemon sadam was sunny yellow and tasted buttery and lemony. Cashews and fried lentils crunched playfully in our mouths.
Navaratna also has a full bar, but alcohol seems boring when you can instead sip a fruity and soothing yogurt-based mango lassi. The nondairy mint cooler was bright green, sweet and refreshingly minty.
Do not skip dessert. The perfect way to end a meal at Navaratna is with a tropical fruit flavored ice cream: mango, pineapple or coconut.
133 Atlantic Street
Cuisine: Indian and Vegatarian
Mon.–Thu. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
Sun. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.