Sunday, November 6, 2011

TMDTIATW: Another Connecticut Indian Score

Astonishingly, Connecticut is home to the two best Indian restaurants I currently know. And my latest discovery, Paradise Biryani (280 Connecticut Avenue, Norwalk, CT; 203-956-7133), demolishes the previous fave, Danbury's highly-under-radar Kabab Grill. My meal there last night was the most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW).

Paradise Biryani is part of a chain, with outlets in places like New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and, according to that last link, new ones soon to arrive in Manhattan and Long Island. But that's ok; Indian chains are good (e.g. this one).

There are accomplished chefs who work with great precision and flair, and possess a keen sense of balance and a careful eye for detail. And there are more grandmotherly chefs, less fastidious and refined and fuzzier about details, but whose work devastates you with enveloping soulfulness. The chef here is both: an uber-fastidious technician of great skill and confidence who's easily capable of launching you into a woozy reverie. This incredibly rare combination makes this restaurant well worth a trip from pretty much anywhere. The chain's other locations may be perfectly good, but they certainly won't be the same. Chefs with both chops and soul aren't mass-produced.

Every dish is like a new world, with its own seasoning and lots of unique touches. Don't even imagine you won't need to eventually try every single dish. And don't insult the place by asking me to recommend "what's good". It's not one like that. This is greatness. So much so, in fact, that I'm not entirely sure I deserve to eat here.

The meal was like an Escher painting, in that each new dish surpassed all those preceding, yet, as we returned for second bites of previous items, we always found them better than we'd remembered. Perhaps the experience of each new miracle had made us better people, with improved palates and increased capacity for appreciating greatness. In any event, the math sketches out like this: A is better than B. B is better than C. C is better than A. B is better than A or C. A is better than B or C. Everything is, simply, better.

The place is BYO, but it would be a crime to bring anything less than exquisite to drink. We paid $40 each with tax and tip for a pretty serious repast.

Paneer 65. Grown-up cheese; so much more firm, mature, and nuanced than the norm. It's sauteed until centers are moist and edges crispy. The sauce, like all this kitchen's sauces, makes my head spin. Tons of curry leaf flavor.

Chicken pakora. A cumin-y miracle. So crisp yet so moist. So light and greaseless, you expect them to float. I couldn't escape the feeling that eating these was making me lose weight.

Fish curry. You don't want to fall into the trap of ordering only enticingly-described dishes. This was just: fish curry. But it left me giddy from deliciousness. Sorry for lack of specificity; as I explained once, at a certain quality level, analysis becomes impossible.

Mirch ka saalan, one of many dishes built around chili peppers. The sauce is sesame-based, but tastes a bit like the Lebanese/Turkish approach to lentil soup.

The biryani was puzzlingly similar in appearance to Uzbek plov, the least refined branch of the pilaf tree. The fine basmati rice made it another thing entirely. Yet this, the restaurant's signature dish, which we ordered as a goat version, was merely good-not-great. A great biryani should offer a grab bag; each bite delivering a different mix of components. This was uniform and a bit simple. The meat was added late (and tossed into the bottom, hard to extract), adding little essence to the rice.

Not pictured: Mango lassis weren't made to order, but made use of particularly classy mango. Breads were based on Bisquick, like most places do it, but presented uncommon subtleties of flavor and texture. For dessert, double ka meetha, a buttery Hyerbadi bread pudding, was terrific, but way too rich for me.

Service borders on maddening. It took a half hour to get water and menus (admittedly on a busy night), and we were really looking forward to masala chai at meal's end, but it took a full ten minutes before we were informed that they were all out (and, by this point, the room was pretty empty). Our waiter told us this with a big cheery smile, as if it was really good news. On the other hand, everyone down to the busboy is so absolutely stoked about the food quality here that when they ask how you like everything, they do so with huge Cheshire cat smiles and burning eyes - conspiratorially, as if to say "This is an absolute frickin' miracle, isn't it?" It's exciting.

I'll offer, as a mere lagniappe, a tip about the Polish deli a few feet north up Route 1. Taste of Europe (239 Westport Ave; Norwalk, CT; 203-846-9668) is, I believe, a major culinary point of light. Arriving too late for buffet lunch, I harpooned the remaining single tiny morsel of pork tenderloin from beneath a sea of lukewarm gravy in its steam table tray and found it supernal. There's a short menu of prepared dishes, too - goulash, potato pancakes, etc. I ache to try them. I did grab a take-out slab of Polish cheesecake, and it was as good as I've had. Again and again, I've found that greatness tends to cluster.


joshi said...

sounds and looks great.

mirch ka salaan is a classic hyderabadi dish, so i'm guessing the biryani was hyderabadi style: layers, with the wonderfully moist, oily goat meat at the bottom.

if i'm right about the hyderabadi origin, then look out for bagara baingan, another classic.

Jim Leff said...

Joshi, yes, I forgot to stress that the place is hyderabadi. Though not flamingly, like the Jersey City place I told you about.

Ok, I won't demerit the biryani for meat on the bottom, then, and it indeed was admirably moist. But it was simple. And my understanding of biryani is that it should never strike you as simple.

The ultimate show of disappointment is that our many, many serving plates were practically licked clean...while the biryani was only half emptied.

joshi said...

i'm astonished that the biryani disappointed - given how good the chef is, it should have been the show stopper!

but then again, you've got to eat the biryani along with the mirch ka salaan, baingan, perhaps dal, yoghurt, some chutneys ... the biryani is the base, and you've got to do some painting of your own.

allisondbl said...

Jeff - can you give name of the "flamingly hyderabadi" Jersey City place you mention? I miss Decca Kabab desperately and must have some Dum Biryani in Westchester County or Manhattan or Little Falls, NJ vicinity SOON!


James Leff said...

Sorry for delay.....

Baba Hut 771 Newark Ave, Jersey City 201-604-1772

also there may or may not be a branch of this same Paradise Biryani operation at 835 Newark Av

allisondbl said...

Wonderful, thank you! I'm headed to Norwalk on Thanksgiving and am going to give Paradise there a call to see if they're open that day so I can snag some for a try AFTER I'm all over the gobble gobble! I'll check out Jabba when I can. Good biryani is SO hard to find; I live for Neerob trips these days! Alley

allisondbl said...

Just so you know I made it to Paradise Norwalk on Thanksgiving and got Chicken Biryani, egg Biryani and Chicken 65. So far I've only had the chicken Biryani and it is delish. Thanks to Josh for the layered knowledge as otherwise I, too, might have thought it too bland. Never had biryani layered so the meat doesn't flavor the rice. Live and learn.

Jim Leff said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your meal, but surprised that you ordered the dish I least recommended!

Debaser said...

Every since Mina closed, and Southern Spice moved to LI, I've been looking for go-to Indian. (Coming from North Brooklyn home base.) Will definitely check this out next trip up 95, as it sounds fantastic.

Assume you haven't tried the Jersey City location? (Which is significantly closer to me?)

Off topic -- but where would/do you go now for Indian in the 5 boroughs?

allisondbl said...

Re "Ordered the dish you least recommended" - totally true but NOT an insult to your influence/knowledge.

Thing is, I adore Biryani above all other foods in the world (save, perhaps, Shun Lee's Slippery Chicken). So I'd rather eat mediocre Biryani than great anything else much of time. It's also my "judgment" dish: the rice ain't nice I ain't a'goin back. Far as I'm concerned Indian food should really be called "Biryani and what the hell I'll add something for variety." I love hyderabadi style and am so sick of eh-old skool Biryani that I took the risk that Joshi's 411 explained your experience. IMHO it did and I'll go back whenever in that area.

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