Indian restaurant in downtown Stamford goes beyond the naan

Photo of Jane Stern

When I first heard about this restaurant, I could not picture what it would be like. There are many Indian restaurants in our part of the state, but I had yet to hear of an authentic Indian restaurant that was both completely vegetarian and was certified kosher.

It wasn’t until I had lunch there a few days ago did I realize this claim was true and the key to myriad dishes I had never sampled. As far as the kosher claim, I was the only patron not wearing a yarmulke. This was the real deal.

At Navaratna, you will not find the same tired old Vindaloos and tikki marsalas. Instead, you can try the fabled street foods of Bombay (Mumbai) or challenge yourself with a Dosa (a yard-long paper-thin crepe filled with chick peas, potatoes and garlic). This was the first time I have seen uttapaam listed on the menu. I had no idea what it was and could not figure out how to pronounce it. uttapaam is a thick rice pancake with sambar and chutney, topped with chilis, onions and cheese or any other toppings you request.

This far-reaching menu is served in a small clean space in downtown Stamford. It is a modern-looking eatery with a distinct downtown feel (i.e., it is hard to park). The service is a bit cool in terms of a big gushy welcome, but otherwise very fast and very professional. When a customer orders many dishes, often the waitstaff is flummoxed and as they bring out the new foods, they leave the old dirty dishes on the table. I have a personal dislike for this shortcoming because I always feel I am sitting among the debris from previous customers.

The waiters here have figured out a way to bring us a large selection of what we ordered in stages so the new foods were hot and crisp and the old dishes were whisked away. Aesthetically, Navaratna has their act together.

I started my feast with a sweet mango lassi. If you never tried one, just imagine a thick fruity apricot colored milkshake with yogurt as the binder. Indian food can be very hot and something magical happens when I start a meal with a Lassi. It acts like plush stomach carpeting, so no scalding hot peppers faze me.

I am not a vegetarian, but the lack of meat dishes here was not in the slightest a drawback. In fact, it made me respect Indian cuisine even more. How can there be so many luscious dishes to choose from that depend solely on the chef’s imagination and his skill with stuffed breads, exotic salads, samosas and regional curries from both northern and southern India.

In addition to these showstoppers, there are eight unique dishes featuring rice. I have eaten biryanis at Indian restaurants and often thought that this yummy rice-and-vegetable hodgepodge was the scope of rice adventuring. Here I went crazy over a whole array of a platters of rice prepared as I had never seen before. I swooned at coconut-flavored rice dotted with tiny astringent mustard seeds, curry leaves, peanuts and cashews. From there I segued to tamarind rice and lemon rice, both as bright and sharp as the fruits they honored and laced with savory nuts. The lemon rice was one of the best dishes I ordered and the bright citrus tang brought back my appetite, rather than erased it.

With some difficulty, I forced myself to stop ordering side dishes and moved on to try a Mumbai street food called baingan chaat. This is a batter-fried tiny eggplant with a sauce of tamarind chutney. Absolutely terrific as is the South Indian curry called enni kathrikini a more sophisticated pairing of eggplant, tamarind, peanuts in a sesame seed gravy. I am embarrassed to say I kept eating. I felt I had already consumed enough to feed a small village in Indian, but there were now eight breads that caught my eye.

Years back when I first fell in love with Indian food I always ordered poori bread (deep-fried whole wheat bread that looks like a balloon when it hits the table and then slowly deflates like a sigh.) Along with the poori, one should order the yogurt-based cucumber and mint raita used to dip the warm bread into.

I have made whole meals of a mango lassi with poori and raita. There are few things I find more satisfying than this simple combination.

But let me lodge a small complaint against almost all the Indian restaurants in Connecticut that have become so lazy they only serve naan and maybe a paratha bread if you are lucky. In the “Bread Corner” of Navaratna’s menu there are two kinds of poori, plain and stuffed with potato marsala, a gentle bhatura which is a deep-fried soft bread, chapathi (a whole wheat soft bread) and Parathas stuffed with cashews, raisins and coconut or chickpea curry.

Rice and Breads are the cornerstone of the Indian meal for good reason. I knew I had to sample the asarambams (appetizers), again a rarely seen selection. I adored the Lentil Doughnuts with onion ginger and green chili, and the gobi malligai, deep fried cauliflower with mint and cilantro. Brilliant!

I lost track of my orders after a while. Stuffed as tight as a paratha bread my mind wandered to the miracle that in Fairfield County I would be sitting in a kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant. I marveled at the team of waiters who managed to understand my slaughtering of the Indian language. Somehow, they figured out my pathetic pronunciation of vaarual, bahara, thayir, aloo, huliyana and chettinad. I did my best trying to form the words I saw on the menu. If they had a good laugh in the kitchen at my expense they deserved it, and four stars to them for never bringing a dish I did not ask for even in my mangled version of their beautiful language.


133 Atlantic St., Stamford

At my first dining experience at Navaratna, I might have seemed a happy idiot, but I was the best fed happy idiot around. I am fine with that.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.