You could probably drive past Swagat a thousand times and never see it. Tucked into a little fork on Boston Post Road and obscured by a generic awning, it’s the kind of place your brain just fails to target when you make your annual Target run. Or else — considering that it’s in strange and slightly creepy West Haven, next to something very sinister called the Tonsorial Academy of Cosmetology — it’s the kind of place you’d roar past with a myopic vengeance.
That’s a shame, though, because Swagat, a recently revamped Indian restaurant run by two seasoned pros, is worth a double-park. (Even if you don’t have a car. Call the minibus.) This cozy little eatery serves delicious, frills-free food, sans sky-high prices or sweatpants policy. Say what you want about New Haven’s Indian offerings—it makes Thali look like an expensive slog, Zaroka like a geriatric fussbudget, and Tandoor like a space cadet with an identity crisis. In short: It’s clean, it’s cheap, and it’s better than what you’ve been eating.
Believe it or not (and my guess is you will), the place isn’t new. Swagat has been quietly plugging along since 2002, under the ownership and chefship of John Nanneti. A native of Calcutta, Mr. Nanneti studied the culinary arts in South India, honing his skills and his knives in the Continental style (think French food and muffin buffets). He traded in his toque, though, when he saw how steely the cooking industry could be. “The head chef gives you a hard time, you don’t like it,” Mr. Nanneti recalls. “I didn’t want to go into cooking.” Instead he joined the hotel business, working in the luxurious Taj hotel chain, and later on cruise liners.
What might have been a fatal blow to his career (and eventually to curry-craving Yalie taste buds) came in 1992, when he was diagnosed with a serious seafood allergy that kept him out of the kitchen for nine years. Fortunately, though, not even food could stop this chef from cooking. “It’s a gift for me,” he says. “I wanted to utilize it.”
Utilize it he has, in a menu that takes risks without straying too far from the standards. All the old favorites are in attendance—biryani, chicken korma, chana masala—but they share space with odder items like pepper lamb ($7.99), green chili paneer ($6.50), and mamsam koora (goat curry). Though he had to teach himself South Indian food before opening the restaurant, Mr. Nanneti’s strengths are ironically in the classics. His masala dosa, an enormous, thin pancake and favorite Indian street food, is stuffed with well-curried potatoes and cooked to a perfect crisp, and his samosas ($4) are well-matched with a spicy mint dipping sauce. Even tastier (and spicier) was the lamb vindaloo, whose notes of cinnamon and anise gave way to a mild aftertaste of oh-my-god-where’s-the-water.
In fact, delicate taste buds be warned: Most of the food at Swagat has a bit of zing. The spice levels range from feisty (a basic chicken curry) to fiery (the chili-garlic dipping sauce served with the already-sizzling pepper lamb). The chef is glad to tailor the heat to his patrons’ tastes—but if you’re looking for sanctuary, go with the wholly delicious saag paneer ($8.99), which is unusually heavy on spinach flavor and mercifully sparing with cheese.
Desserts and sides were somewhat less engaging. A generous order of naan ($2.99) seemed like a decent deal, but the bread itself was tough and doughy, like naked pizza crust. The gulab jamun, a pair of cottage cheese dumplings soaked in honey, tasted like donut holes brined in sugar and awesome—but not so much for the kheer (rice pudding), which was gloppy and overcooked. Still, we weren’t worried: We didn’t need desserts or sides to leave satisfied.
The space itself is a warm, snug, one-room shoebox, brightened by vermillion walls and mellowed by paper lanterns. Its dark wood furniture is sturdy but not fussy — made for dining, not for dawdling. The same no-nonsense policy holds true for the kitchen, which makes brisk and tidy work of its curries and shwarmas, and for its service, which, on the night I went, consisted solely of co-owner and manager Bruce Bennett.
Like his partner Mr. Nanneti, Mr. Bennett is no stranger to Indian food. Born in Hyderabad and raised on South Indian flavors, he’s spent the past twenty years in the Indian restaurant business, working most recently as a waiter at Thali, and then as manager of Thali Too. He first met Mr. Nanneti during his Thali days, and this past December, the two men shook hands and formed a partnership. Mr. Nanneti continues to run the kitchen, but Mr. Bennett has taken control of the front of the house, redesigning both the menu and the interior. “I always had a dream of opening of a restaurant,” he tells me. “I am a people person. I love to serve people. Working at a desk, under a fan, you know—office work, I don’t like it. Selling is my hobby. I sell food.”
He’s in luck, because I buy food. And I’m in luck too, because the food available for purchase at Swagat is remarkably cheap. Entrees range from $9 (for most vegetable dishes) to $12 (for more elaborate fish and lamb plates); empty stomachs with empty wallets can recharge on $2.50 chapathis and those plump 4-buck samosas. The sweetest deal might be the mango lassi ($3), a silky yogurt potion that doesn’t kid around with the mango. It’s a huge improvement on your standard Yorkside milkshake—not only because it’s tastier, but because you can justifiably drink it sober. (And you’ll have to at Swagat, unless you want to BYOB.) Best of all, though, is the fifteen-percent-off punch that a Yale ID packs here. Finally, our tuition is giving back.
The restaurant keeps reasonable human being hours (noon to 10pm, seven days a week)—which fortunately overlap with the average Yale student’s waking hours (1pm to 5am, or noon to noon during midterms). So next time you get a tickle for tikka masala, get off your butts and call the shuttle. There’s more to life than aluminum tins from Royal India, and astonishingly enough it’s in West Haven. And if you just can’t bear to make the journey, don’t lose heart: On weekdays from 11 to 1:30, they’ve got a food cart outside Yale-New Haven hospital. Guitar Heroes and Heroines, all you’d need to do is break a leg.