By Elizabeth Keyser
4:30 PM EDT, September 3, 2013
There's been a revolution in Indian food in Fairfield County over the last 15 years. Used to be you could only find it in obscure strip-mall take-out joints. Then Coromandel in Darien started catching a buzz. The opening chef, Kausik Roy, went on to open Tawa in downtown Stamford, one of the most highly rated Indian restaurants in the state.
Now Roy has opened Aladin in Norwalk, in an easily overlooked spot on the Post Road near Stew Leonard's (the former Los Cabos). An Indian restaurant is welcome. A fair strip of the Post Road in Westport and Norwalk has lacked a nice Indian restaurant since Thali and the short-lived Thali Too gave way to the short-loved Oaxaca Kitchen. Further north on the Post Road in Westport, Mumbai Times opened about a year ago. In SoNo, there's a Coromandel.
Aladin Indian Bistro doesn't look like much from the outside, a plain, one-story building with lots of windows. There's a 20-seat bar in the front room. Beyond, the dining room shimmers sedately, with slate-gray walls and mother-of-pearl-evoking artwork. White tablecloths cover the tables at comfortable brown booths. It's an attractive room, with a subtle stone water wall.
Take a look at the menu and you might start making some connections. You'll notice some of the most beloved dishes from Tawa's bread bar, including Ramp Kulcha, naan bread stuffed with locally foraged wild leeks. And Karari Bhindi, crispy okra with red onion, cilantro and green chili — a dish that will turn okra haters into okra lovers. Chef Justin Joy will be executing Roy's menu at Aladin, and co-owner Anjum Naveed will be on-site when Roy is at Tawa. Kausik Roy invited members of the press to a tasting of Aladin's menu recently. After introducing Joy and Naveed, Roy said we wouldn't see him again. "I will be cooking for you," he said. But he couldn't resist, as the courses were served, coming out of the kitchen to see our reactions and explain a bit.
"This is the dish that's served the way it is in India," Roy said of the Ramp Kulcha, "I'm making you use your fingers." In a bowl was dal, creamy lentils, to be scooped up with the naan. The warm, buttery, toasty bread was stuffed with ramp pesto. Also requiring fingers was another Roy original: pakoda fritters, made of artichoke and scallion, with an eggplant dipping sauce.
Bombay Bhel is a real street snack. And it's fun, with crispy rice puffs beneath tamarind sauce, spicy chutney, raw onions, sprinkled with besan sev, thin crisp strands that look like shredded wheat but actually are deep-fried noodles made from chickpea flour, spiced of course. This is a dish for those who love bold flavors.
Manchurian Cauliflower represents Indo-Chinese cooking. The florets are sprinkled with spices, fried and then covered in tangy sweet-sour tomato sauce. Mint and basil kebabs have a freaky-glow-in-the-dark green color, but they taste minty and spicy, and smoky. They're accompanied by a little bowl containing two sauces, sweet mint and plain, cooling yogurt.
Dinner is served family-style in India, so that's how Roy fed us. The two most dramatic dishes feature lamb. The lamb shank is an impressive joint of soft meat, sitting on top of a thick red sauce, containing layers of sweet-sour flavor and appealing chewiness of herbs and onions. It's the kind of food you'd get in someone's home, said a young Indian woman at our table (who happens to be a hostess at Thali Too in New Haven). "My mother makes this dish with fish," she said excitedly.
The signature lamb dampak arrived sealed with a piece of Indian naan. The waiter cuts it open at the table, releasing curling steam and the scent of a blend of indecipherable spices in the dark red sauce covering chunks of lamb. Goan Seafood curry, a turmeric-yellow coconut sauce, held shrimp, scallops and fish.
Sides come in full and half-sized portions, which is sensible. Yellow dal, flavored with cumin, curry leaves, fresh garlic and dry chili, is soft and homey, and buttery. Dal Makhni is black lentils with Roy's special garam masala mix. Roy points out that Aladin's menu had many vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. The menu also notes they use halal meats.
At lunch, Aladin offers nan and paratha wraps and thali, a lunch platter of curry of the day, dal, spinach and chickpea curry, rice pilaf and naan ($10), as well as to go lunch boxes.
For dessert, Roy served us falooda. It's a dessert you get on the streets of Bombay, where each place has a special way of layering it. Chef Roy's version is a cooling, lightly rose-water scented ice cream float filled with layers of tapioca, basil seeds and vermicelli. For the Western palate, it all adds up to a wild trip. "No one else is serving this," said Chef Roy.
Aladin Indian Bistro
36 Westport Ave., Norwalk, (203) 939-9040, aladinindianbistro.com. Live music Thursday through Sunday, and Sunday brunch.
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