Justin Lo, food writer, dons a toque and joins some of the city’s most inspired chefs in their own kitchens for an intimate look at New Haven’s food scene.
It is 7:30 on a Friday evening. The kitchen has finally come alive. Orders are flying, and at the same time sauté pans are hitting the fire. On the line, one chef stokes a tandoor oven used for baking bread in-house, another chef pounds out thin strips of filet mignon with an oversized meat tenderizer, and yet another uses bare hands to swoop up two hot skillets, transferring them to the nearest plating station.
“Pick up table,” chef-owner Prasad Chirnomula says, instructing his sous-chef to fire up another incoming order. In spite of the unavoidable frustrations of nightly dinner rush — a server who forgets to submit a ticket and another who gives his customer shrimp instead of chicken — Chirnomula remains commendably calm at his control station, a little niche he digs out for himself just to avoid colliding with the oncoming orders. I, on the other hand, count myself moderately fortunate just to have dodged a heaping bowl of biryani.
Chirnomula, known affectionately as “Prasad” by members of his staff, speaks with the personal conviction of a man who has spent almost his entire life working in the industry — he began his career in Hyderabad, a city in India, in 1982, and moved to the United States in 1986.
“Success of restaurants depends on one’s self and vision,” he reflects, and his story seems to be no exception.
Prasad routinely works intensive 17- to 18-hour workdays at his newest restaurant, Thali of New Haven, which joined the ranks of his other two restaurants of the same name in June 2006.
On this particular evening, sporting his black baseball cap, this father of two looks unassuming in chef’s whites as he orchestrates this entire scene. His mannerisms do not seem suited to the sort of visionary whom David Rosengarten — author of the popular newsletter “The Rosengarten Report” — honored as “the best Indian chef in America.” In the same article, Rosengarten also named Thali his “favorite Indian restaurant in the U.S., hands down.”
As the dinner rush rages on, Prasad gestures to his line chef, who returns bearing a plate of pathar ka gosht. “For tonight’s special, we used a filet mignon instead of lamb,” he continues, extending the plate in my direction. Grilled on bamboo skewers in a mild but fragrant cashew paste, the pathar ka gosht bears great likeness in taste to its distant cousin: Thai satay. It is, he admits, an imaginative approach to pathar ka gosht that one is not likely to find at any other Indian restaurant in the area.
At another station, one of the servers plates up an order of dahi batata sev poori, miniature wheat and semolina puffs filled with a chickpea mixture and served with a sweet tamarind sauce. The aesthetics of the dish are enhanced by its artful presentation on suspended soup spoons, which reflect a certain edginess evocative of new-age chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago.
Appropriately, Prasad has been recognized for this inventive approach to Indian cuisine, most recently by the New York Times, which praised Prasad for his determined approach to changing the way people think about Indian food, reeducating those whose only association with Indian food has been in the context of red-dyed tandoor chicken and mixed-based curries.
Admitting that he still deals with his fair share of patrons who have conditioned food phobias toward Indian cuisine, Prasad nonetheless predicts that, to the extent other ethnic foods have in the past few years, Indian cuisine will eventually work its way into the mainstream of contemporary food culture.
“I think this food is going to excel so much,” Prasad says. “Once you get used to it, it all becomes a craving.”
Foodies like myself can take heart in knowing that traditional ethnic fare, foods that have long since occupied a place outside the sphere of haute (and characteristically European) food culture, are finally taking a stand. For instance, Masa, a Japanese restaurant in New York City, recently became the first non-French restaurant ever to garner the coveted three-star Michelin rating.
Directing his own revolution in Indian cuisine, Prasad approaches each of his dishes as an imaginative exercise influenced by the flavors and styles of pan-regional Indian cuisine. Though some of his dishes descend from the lighter, spicier fare of Southern India, where his hometown of Hyderabad is located, he also utilizes the heavier and creamier sauces characteristic of the North. And whimsical dishes like Konkan crab and venison in red wine reduction, as well as desserts like banana samosas and green cardamom ice cream, reflect the boldness of Prasad’s cooking, while remaining an extension of Indian cuisine.
What this means, for Prasad, is being gutsy with his use of new flavors and textures. It means inventing and reinventing dishes that reflect his personality. It means allowing his customers to experience something new and innovative about Indian cuisine.
“The ingredients are all Indian. The spices are all there. But, it’s just being imaginative,” Prasad says. “Basically it’s a passion to serve people, it’s a passion to cook, it’s a passion to enjoy doing it. That’s certainly what I do, and I live for it.”
Prasad Chirnomula, Executive Chef and Owner of Thali
Favorite Ingredient: Fenugreek, a bitter herb that Prasad says must be used in moderation
Favorite Dishes: Konkan Crab, Chat, Dosa, Mother’s Andhra Chicken Curry
Goals: To travel, write, and eventually open restaurants in a major U.S. city and in Europe
Memorable Quote: “I go with what I like. My personality is the restaurant. This is my living room.”
Chef Prasad Chirnomula personally taught me how to prepare this signature dish. The Konkan crab utilizes ingredients that would not be difficult to find at a local market. And, given the simplicity of the ingredients themselves, it allows you to add better quality ingredients to the dish, making it easy to impress your friends and family.
In the preparation of the dish, Prasad stresses the importance of cooking by feel rather than relying too heavily on the proportions as given by the recipe. In the event that you overcompensate for a particular ingredient, it is simple enough just to balance it out with the other ingredients. When I prepared the dish, I overcompensated on the coconut milk. In correcting for this error, I let the sauce reduce over medium heat until I obtained the desired consistency.
Preparation Time: 10 Minutes
Cooking Time: 10 Minutes
Serves: 4 as an appetizer
1 lb jumbo lump crab
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ginger, peeled and chopped
8 curry leaves
1 serrano chili, chopped
1 medium sized red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup coconut milk
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Black pepper powder, to taste
Salt, to taste
Heat a heavy bottomed sauté pan to a smoking point and reduce heat from high to medium. Add butter to the pan and after 30 seconds quickly add mustard seeds, chopped garlic, ginger, curry leaf, Serrano chilies and onions. Stir for two minutes by increasing to high heat. Add the jumbo lump crab, salt and pepper and cook for one minute. Now add the coconut milk and reduce it by further cooking five minutes, scraping all the sides and bottom. Mix in lemon juice, stir and serve hot.