In May of 2000, Restaurateur Jose Pullopilly introduced Indian cuisine to the then largely restaurant-deprived town of Darien. Infusing the Americana food landscape with such exotic cuisine was a gamble indeed.
“We anticipated a learning curve, not only on our end, but on the consumer’s end as well,” recalls Pullopilly. “The flavors were unknown to many, and the perception of Indian food needed to be altered.”
Rated “Very Good” by the New York Times in its first year, and bestowed with an “Excellent” a few years after—a feat that most critics and restaurateurs thought nearly impossible for a non “white table cloth” establishment, let alone a small Indian eatery—Coromandel Cuisine of India quickly gained credibility in the industry and popularity among locals.
Coromandel’s buffet lunch, touted as one of the best deals in town, was the ultimate introduction to this bold and flavorful cuisine. And still, customers can feast on an array of classic Indian dishes for a mere $11.95.
Before I continue, I must set the record straight, as to what “curry” means. Forget that wretched, sweet, yellow curry powder found in the grocery store. Here are the facts:
- Curry is not a spice in itself, but rather a blend of spices
- Curry blends include: pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace, turmeric, cardamom, tamarind, fennel, chilies, and many other aromatic herbs and spices
- There are Asian and American curry blends as well as Indian
The menu includes popular dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala, tender chicken broiled in the Tandoori oven (tandoor) and simmered in a creamy tomato curry sauce; and Sag Paneer, chopped spinach, sautéed with lots of garlic and ginger, reduced down into a rich and creamy consistency with cubes of homemade cheese (paneer).
Also featured: chicken, lamb or fish Vindaloo. This spicy, tomato based dish from the Goan region has plenty of soft potato chunks to soak up the tangy sauce.
And to scoop up the many intense flavors is the traditional Naan bread, which is baked in the tandoor oven. The dough is flattened and pressed against the walls of the oven, and topped with anything from garlic and jalapeños to nuts and raisins.
Coromandel has created a loyal following of both eat-in (50 seats in the dining room) and take-out fans, and Pullopilly says the perception and popularity of the cuisine has improved over the years. Now that he’s won over the locals, Pullopilly has taken his cuisine to a whole other level.
On this particular night at Coromandel, my boyfriend Scott and I tucked ourselves into a corner table in the jam-packed dining room. Sipping on various Indian ales and stouts, we ventured outside of our comfort zone and decided to only order dishes we had never tried before (portions are large and leftovers are delicious); several were from Chef Jinay Thomas’ specials list.
“Many of our specials are used as ways to experiment and gauge our customer’s tastes,” explains Pullopilly. “Some of them have since earned a permanent home on the menu.”
First, an appetizer of Tabak Mas, hunks of juicy beef strip loin marinated and grilled in the tandoor. Yes, you read that correctly—beef. Typically not found on Indian menus, lamb being the more widely accepted red meat in the Indian culture, the simplicity in this dish shines. An accoutrement of a cool, sweet, crunchy slaw-like salad of raw beets, cabbage, red onion, and carrots was a fabulous contrast to the saltiness of the meat.
Next we dove into the Chappli Dingri, a wild mushroom cake of sorts, with aromatic spices, grilled, and served with sweet apricot chutney. Quite unique, light and tasty.
Continuing down the specials menu, Scallops Ashrafiyansea were a surprise treat. Large sweet sea scallops were grilled and then bathed in a roasted tomato spiced reduction. Sweet hints in the sauce played nicely with the natural sweet juices of the scallops. Fragrant and fluffy Basmati rice (served with all entrées) absorbs all the wonderful sauce.
For a special entrée, we enjoyed the Kori Gassi, a Manglorian chicken preparation, spiked with red chiles, coriander, black pepper, cumin, coconut and tamarind. We tend to go for the dishes with more heat and bold flavor; this dish accomplished both.
For a side dish, we tried Dahiwala Bhindi, spiced okra simmered in fresh coriander and organic yogurt sauce. I’ve always considered okra to be an acquired taste, but now I am changing my tune. Here, the okra is left whole, with tiny splits down the side to allow the “slimy” juice from within to escape. It is then sautéed and simmered in the robust yogurt sauce. It’s a marvelous dish.
Feeling adventurous, we continued with a few lesser known items from the menu including Shaam Savera, six spinach wrapped cottage cheese (likened to ricotta cheese) dumplings atop a pungent tomato honey sauce. The subtlety of the dumplings met its match with the tanginess and acidity of the sauce. It was delicious.
Pullopilly recommended we try the Malai Katti Roll. Lightly seasoned paneer and minced vegetables rolled in a whole-wheat crepe and grilled. I likened it to a soft egg roll, hearty and tasty, with four large rolls to an order.
Another out of the ordinary ingredient found on the menu is duck. Called Angare Badak, the duck breast is marinated with yogurt and spices and cooked in the tandoor. The tandoor imparts a smoky flavor unto itself, which, combined with the fatty skin of the duck and aromatic spices, is a sublime experience. I can’t help but wonder how even more fabulous it would be if prepared with the dark meat of the duck.
Feeling happy, stuffed, and pleased with our more exploratory choices, Pullopilly, knowing our affinity to spicy foods, brings yet another “new” dish to the table: Lamb Phaal. Cooked with a blend of chilies, onions, tomatoes and spices is a high-heat, smoky-sweet, mélange of tender sliced lamb swimming in a tomato based. We love this dish. The menu says that this is a very popular dish in England, where Indian food is quite revered. I can taste why.
Coromandel remains a charming restaurant. Playful, colorful light fixtures adorn the walls and hang from the ceiling. Multi-colored napkins dress the tables, and vibrant wall paintings display historic Indian scenes. The clientele is diverse and the staff is quick to recognize their loyal customers.
Everybody seems to leave with a bag of leftovers, as portions are generous and accessible prices points makes it easier to order a variety of dishes to savor and share. (Leftovers reheat well and taste even better the day after.)
The wine list boasts over 100 bottles. Pullopilly has taken great care in creating a list that is global, many of which can stand up to the bold and diverse palate of flavors in the cuisine. Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir varietals are among the most popular to pair with Indian cuisine. I prefer my earthier beers, of which Coromandel has done a great job in selecting.
I am happy to see Coromandel’s continued success in Darien and beyond. Stamford, South Norwalk, Orange, Newtown and New Rochelle have also been the lucky recipients of this high quality Indian restaurant conglomerate over the past nine years. Luck them. And Lucky us!