When was the last time you ate seitan? Tempeh? I bet you don’t even know what they are (wheat-gluten and soybean products, respectively). It doesn’t matter: even if you’re not vegetarian or vegan, Red Lentil, which first opened in July, is guaranteed to amaze.
Located on Temple Street, Red Lentil moved into the space previously occupied by Mandala, an Indian-Italian-Mexican fusion restaurant that saw little traffic from the Yale community. To be honest, I don’t think I ever took notice of Mandala. On the other hand, Red Lentil, with its bright orange walls and inviting glow, caught our eyes from across the street as we struggled to find the restaurant through the sheets of rain. Once inside, the space felt a little too large; in spite of the many patrons sitting at the tables, the restaurant seemed empty. But our waitress informed us that chef/owner Panjak Pradhan, a 33-year-old native of India, has plans to redecorate to match the original, located in Watertown, Mass. He also hopes to utilize the back rooms for private parties in the near future (watch out, Thali Too).
Pradham asks that you not judge the food before you taste it.
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“Eat with your eyes, then your mouth,” our waitress, a reformed carnivore, told my friend and me. “I didn’t believe [Pradhan], so he made me close my eyes and just taste with my mouth. It’s been three weeks and everything I’ve eaten has been from this restaurant and has been absolutely delicious.”
She was right: we were happily surprised by the intricacy of the menu, comprised of just enough familiar dishes to balance those that challenge the palate. Each dish is carefully crafted — Pradhan’s thoughtfulness and skill are apparent in even the descriptions on the menu. We started with the baby spinach salad ($8), a simple dish made sophisticated by the additions of grilled Bosc pear, fennel and toasted hazelnuts.
Next came the nachos ($9). Oh, the nachos! A heaping pile of tortilla chips, gooey jack cheese, refried beans, topped with fresh pico de gallo, house-made sour cream and guacamole, and just a light sprinkling of jalapenos — perhaps these ingredients sound ordinary, but as any expert of nachos will know, the secret is in the layering. These were arranged just so, with cheese, chip and bean lovingly tucked into each bite. They are certainly a worthy addition to any football game this season (Red Lentil does takeout), and a surprising highlight of our meal. Just make sure you have plenty of friends to share with.
We almost overlooked Red Lentil’s specialty, the Gobi Manchurian ($9), described on the menu as batter-fried cauliflower. But the variety of Indian spices in the chickpea batter and zesty tomato sauce rendered mere vegetable a rich indulgence. Best of all — they tasted just like chicken nuggets.
For our entrees, we ordered the sweet potato quesadilla ($9.50) and butternut squash polenta ($13.99). The quesadilla was an interesting combination of sweet potato, roasted asparagus, spinach, tomato and jack cheese. While tasty enough, it was a little heavy, both in creaminess and in weight. Fewer ingredients would have made the dish more manageable.
The butternut squash polenta was both visually and orally stunning. Stacked squares of polenta, golden-brown and crispy on the outside, melted under the sensuous weight of the oyster mushroom and tomato ragout. The creaminess of the polenta and the zesty ragout balanced one another perfectly. Grilled spears of asparagus, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and sunflower seed pesto, criss-crossed on top. In both taste and composition, this was a dish I could easily imagine at a higher-end restaurant.
I am neither vegetarian nor vegan, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t notice the lack of meat during dinner. I left so stuffed, happy and satisfied, I didn’t notice it afterwards either. And when I heated up my leftovers the next day and ate those too, I still didn’t notice the absence of meat. Red Lentil deserves, at the very least, a chance to show what great vegan and vegetarian cooking can be like. For those already converted, ring me for a nacho date.