Monday, January 18, 2010

Coromandel...Cuisine of India

It was an unusually mild early evening in Stamford; perfect pneumonia weather. While we should have been bundled in head to toe with Sherpa-like attire, Maarten and I were instead gloveless, hatless and clad in leather jackets and welcoming the slight breeze that whizzed through our hair as we strolled through the busy (relatively speaking) streets of downtown Stamford.  My head thought it was a bit too early to have dinner, but oh how my tummy doth protested.

In reality, the tub of popcorn that I helped to devour a couple of hours earlier while at the movies didn’t wreak nearly as much havoc on my appetite as one might have guessed. So, at 6:15 p.m., after having been awed by “Avatar” and vowing to paint myself blue, purchase a giant bird upon which to fly and declaring war on the Sky People, Maarten and I took a short walk from Bow Tie Cinema to Coromandel at the corner of Broad Street and Summer Street.

Had Maarten not been paying close attention, I would have sworn the place was closed for the evening, but he spotted candles burning in the window. Unless the place was on fire and about to be fully engulfed in flames, my assumption was they were, indeed, open for business. When we opened the door, our nostrils were immediately assaulted with the overwhelming fragrance of incense that stayed with me until we left the restaurant. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. In fact, perhaps 'assaulted' is probably too harsh a word. But the aroma did, nonetheless, whip me into a perfumed frenzy that made me feel like I should be dancing around while chanting a soothing mantra with which to calm my aggressive spirit (after all, I did just see a movie that, while a cinematic tour de force, had its fair share of gun play, exploding thingamajigs, arrows soaring through the air and lodging in breathing targets, and just a tiny smattering of profanity sprinkled in for good measure). But I digress.

While Coromandel was pleasing to my olfactory senses, it took more than a passing second for my eyes to adjust to the extremely dim mood lighting. It was so dark, in fact, that I couldn’t even pretend to read the menu without my glasses (which were at that very moment resting comfortably inside my eyeglass case on my nightstand at home). Maarten didn’t fare much better—in fact, he was even worse off without his reading glasses. Ah, the joys of aging.

When the waiter showed us to our table, I felt compelled to reach out for the chair like I couldn’t see a blasted thing, fumbling around in the dark and tripping over my own big feet. Resisting the ridiculous urge, I sat down in the chair with little to no difficulty. The drink menu was placed in Maarten’s hand and he stared blankly at it. He was no help. Grabbing the menu from his outstretched arms with one hand and the dimly lit candle placed in the center of the table with my other hand, I set out on a mission to read.

I failed miserably.

The lighting was so horrible that Maarten finally resorted to pulling his cell phone from his pocket, connecting with the Google home page, and VOILA!—the tiny table was awash in light (or at least enough illumination to peruse the menu one scant line at a time). Looks like it was going to be an Orange Cosmo concoction kind of night, principally because it was the first cocktail that I could clearly read on the menu.

When the waiter returned to begin the arduous task of order-taking, I decided to let my protestations be heard. “I think this says ‘Orange Cosmo’ but I’m not sure because it’s so dark in here.” Sure, it was a bit passive aggressive, but it prompted him to actions, even if said actions were all for naught. He sauntered to the bar area, turned a few knobs back and forth a couple of times, and the lighting was intensified by a scant two percent. I continued to squint at the menu for appetizers and entrees while simultaneously grumbling out loud to no one in particular about the lack of lighting. This, apparently, was not the route to take for it produced zero results.

After what seemed like an eternity—although in reality it was only three or four minutes—my eyeballs focused just enough (with the assistance of the light from the cell phone) to read through the apps and entrées. Surprisingly, even in my state of frustration, many of the dishes sounded appetizing to me. Indian spices have a tendency to be a bit more potent than, say, Thai spices, so I steered clear of anything that indicated it was spicy. I had almost made up my mind on the Konkiami Xinanse—calamari stir fried with garlic, onions and green peppers—but then the Sham Savera caught my eye (vegetable cups stuffed with homemade cheese served in a honey glazed fennel flavored tomato chutney). Unfortunately, this would not be a selection for the evening as Maarten’s inability to process cheese without the help of lactose pills would make me a very selfish wife indeed. After a brief confab, we mutually decided the Murgh 65 would suit us just fine.

I dreaded any more future attempts to read the menu without adequate lighting, but if I didn’t persevere, we would starve. Plunging ahead, I noticed that Coromandel had several sections on the menu from which to choose besides appetizers, soups and salads. There were the Tandoori SE (from the grill), Seafood (Machli), Chicken (Murgh), Lamb (Gosht) and Vegetarian (Subji), in addition to various breads and a couple of dishes under the Rice heading. Without having seen the actual menu listings and, instead, relying on what I read from the menu, Maarten selected the Chicken Tikka Masala, while I chose Murgh Tikka Saag.

My Orange Cosmo arrived at the table simultaneously with the Murgh 65 appetizer. I have no idea where the “65” in the dish’s namesake comes from, but I didn’t bother to ask. My tummy was rumbling from popcorn overload and it was high time to eat a bit of real food. The Murgh 65 was tender chunks of chicken cooked in spices, curry leaves, onions and peppers. While not overwhelmingly spicy, it did have a bit of a kick to it—enough of a kick that the alcohol infused orange flavor of my cocktail was a welcome extinguisher to my lightly smoldering lips (well, that and the fact that the Cosmo was just damn good so any excuse to sip it was deemed a good one). The smaller pieces of chicken shrapnel—crispy crumbs, really—bore the brunt of the heat, and were tasty little fiery morsels of meat that were difficult to stay away from.

After practically licking the Murgh plate clean, we waited for our entrées to arrive. During the lull, I glanced around Coromandel. It was a small place, but by no means did it have a stuff-all-you-can-into-a-tiny-space feel. The carpeting and wall treatment worked beautifully to buffer any hollow sounds that may have been lingering, and did wonders for soundproofing. The bar area, while tiny and offering only six bar stools, was comfortable looking and was better well-lit than the rest of the restaurant.

I was staring at the portrait of a beautiful Indian woman when the food arrived. In all honesty, the aromatic fragrance reached me before the bowls of food did and, subsequently, I spent the first fifteen seconds eating with my nose. The next twenty minutes were devoted solely to my mouth. Maarten's Chicken Tikka Masala—chicken cooked in a delicious and creamy tomato curry sauce—was rather deceiving in its appearance. While it looked to be mere chicken swimming in soup, it was far more than that. The curry sauce was slightly acidic, thanks to the tomato, but not so much so that I felt it would burn a hole in my throat. It was very balanced in flavor, and the chicken was relatively tender, albeit a few hints of toughness here and there. On the whole, however, it was a good dish.

Having given a bit of praise to the chicken tikka masala, the real honor goes to my Murgh Tikka Saag. I say this as if I wrangled, defeathered and cooked the chicken myself, but it was a dish that I would be proud to place on my table every day. While not the most appetizing in appearance, I was determined not to let the cafeteria-styled look of the bowl dissuade me. I'm glad I stuck to my guns, too, because had I gone purely on looks alone, I would have pushed myself away from the table, walked three blocks down the street and raided McDonald's for a stamped-out filet-o-fish sandwich. The dish was overflowing with tender, juicy chunks of chicken mixed with creamy spinach and garnished with strips of ginger root. Not only were the flavors perfectly melded together in harmony, but the hint of garlic was just enough to add flavor yet not be offensive to any stray vampires within breathing distance. The rice at Coromandel was also extremely tender, with each grain being its own separate entity from the next grain—no clumping, no sticking, no crowding—perfect rice.

Suffice it to say, this dish was good. So good, in fact, that Maarten actually preferred it over his own dish. This is not to say that he found the Chicken Tikka Masala inedible. On the contrary, we both enjoyed the flavors of the Masala; however, in hand-to-hand combat, the undisputed winner would be the Murgh Tikka Saag.

Coromandel turned out to be better than I expected when I first entered the restaurant. The lighting, or lack thereof, threw me for a loop, but I suppose, in some twisted way, there is a method to the madness. Perhaps the management of Coromandel wants the flavors of the food to speak for itself, thus, the ridiculously dark mood lighting. Who knows? I do know, however, that Coromandel is now on my "Places To Visit . . . Again" list. Only, next time, I think I'll bring a flashlight and a pair of reading glasses . . . just in case.

Would I recommend Coromandel? Coromandel is a nice restaurant that shouldn't be missed when you're in the mood for fine Indian cuisine.

Is Coromandel a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? Coromandel is moderately priced. The portions that we had were large enough to warrant leftovers, which makes for an extremely economical lunch the following day. However, as with any restaurant, some of the items were higher priced than others, but that should come as no surprise. Having said that, two people can easily leave the restaurant having paid a $50 or $60 bill (before tip) and walk away well fed for their efforts.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Despite the lack of lighting, the atmosphere at Coromandel is very relaxing. Some would argue that darkness adds to the allure and soothing nature of a restaurant. This may be true, but when it’s so dark that you can barely see the menu, it’s time to light a big candle. There was piped in music playing but it wasn’t nearly loud enough to intrude on conversations, which is always a plus.

68 Broad Street, Stamford, CT 06901 (203) 964-1010
Coromandel also has sister restaurants in Darien, CT; Newton, CT; Orange, CT; South Norwalk, CT; and New Rochelle, NY

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