Full of Surprises

Full of Surprises

The owners of Sherkaan, the new Indian restaurant located up the path between the Yale Bookstore and the Apple Store, want you to walk in and feel as if you’ve been transported to India.

But not the jungle village or exotic palace of the western imagination. The India familiar to Ankit Harpaldas and Prianca Kapadia—the India of their parents—is dynamic and urban, the streets of Mumbai or Kolkata represented most vividly by actual bicycles suspended from the dining room ceiling. Their backdrop is a black and white mural of a life-sized train car. The host station at the door is a replica of the front of a small truck. A Tata truck, as David Mascolo, the house manager, explained to me. Tata Motors is the General Motors of India; the truck’s face, windshield right atop the grille, is apparently the very face of commerce there. “That’s the whole point of it,” says Mascolo, “to pay homage to the street life.” Street food is itself customarily on wheels. It arises out of—and creates—cravings that can’t be long braked for.

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Sure enough, the cuisine at Sherkaan is elevated street food—“street eats” with an entirely Indian flavor vocabulary, including chaats (or snacks). But some of the forms are playfully American. Sharable, attackable, able to be consumed while talking loudly.

The Chaat Dog ($9 vegetarian, or $11 lamb) is the epitome of this fusion, and I should say the bun was an actual hot dog bun, perfectly toasted and split to just the right degree around the “dog” inside. You know exactly what to do and before you’re even conscious of it, you’ve picked it up sideways and bitten off a quarter of it as if you’re at a ballgame. But then the taste surprises you into slow exploration. The kebab was a perfect chewy-pillowy cylinder and the chutney was like a rich relish, but the aromatics of lamb, garlic and other pleasant surprises take you out of the ballpark. The Okra Fries ($7) were a natural accompaniment. What a thing to do to a perfectly healthy green vegetable, slicing it into matchsticks and frying it to a salty crisp. But never mind. I ate one, then I ate 15 more.

The Indo-Chinese Pork Ribs ($15) were surely, I thought, a bridge too close. They were tender enough and generously meaty—indeed, only meaty, with just a subtle tamarind glaze to mark it as Indo-Chinese, conceding perhaps too much to the meat-on-the-bone sports bar. But Kapadia offered an enthusiastic correction: Chinese cuisine—and the pork rib with it—is already embedded in Indian street food. Kapadia says, “When you go to India, they have hakka noodles, which are like Asian inspired noodles that are spicy. You’ll find a lot of India Chinese dishes in India itself. That’s where the inspiration came from.” This provided me with a more useful understanding of food purity in an age of riddled borders. There are versions of a cuisine that are simplified and preserved in amber by and for other cultures. Meanwhile, the cuisine itself is constantly evolving and accepting new influences in its own place.

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The obvious comparison is between Sherkaan and what Kapadia called “white tablecloth” Indian restaurants, which she explained are Indian by way of imperial Britain. Harpaldas, who is also Kapadia’s husband, elaborates. “Anyone who thought Indian food thought tikka masala or vindaloo, right? I’m not saying it’s not true Indian. They use Indian spices. But it’s not something you’d find in our home or on our streets.”

Harpaldas’s understanding of Indian cuisine in America—and in Connecticut specifically—goes back at least a generation as well. His father once operated a traditional Indian restaurant called Royal India in New Haven, going on to open other Indian restaurants around the state. The younger Harpaldas opened his first establishment—serving New American-style with craft beers—in Unionville, a borough of Farmington. (It’s still there.) New American was also the cuisine of his chef Bryan Burke. Burke now executes the menu at Sherkaan, having spent a year learning and experimenting with Indian cuisine, much of that time in Kapadia’s mother’s kitchen. So the Sherkaan menu is actually the result of two border crossings, from American to Indian and back.

I suspect that a knack for chicken is something Burke brought with him both ways. The Butter Chicken ($13) in its bath of tomato and cream is probably the closest link to a white tablecloth menu. At Sherkaan, it was a sumptuous pleasure, largely due to the tenderness of the chicken itself. The Charcoal Chicken ($9) was also beautifully tender and flavor-rich, even with its fun-sized presentation. The tamarind and coconut in its shell needed only to accent it. The two dishes came from different sections of the menu—one a Shared Plate, the other a Chaat—but with sharability and snackability being an attribute of both, it didn’t matter to me in what order I ordered them, or in what order they arrived. Says Kapadia, “We definitely want to create that atmosphere for people where they can just have food and have fun. And really change people’s perceptions on traditional Indian food.” Some of the fun for me was the change in perception—the menu disorientation that had me simply ordering plates left and right and allowing myself to be surprised.

Mascolo adds that the menu will change with the seasons. The spectrum of flavors and textures in the debut menu is already suggestive of seasonality. I strongly suspect the Squash Dosa ($10)—a stew-hearty sweet potato base inside a sprawling, crepe-like dosa—will be their go-to comfort food when winter comes. And the Roasted Corn Chaat ($8), with its sections of fresh corn further sweetened by pomegranate, will be their honorary summer salad. (The menu has actual salads too.)

The cocktails at Sherkaan, mixed behind a copper bar, benefit from a similar richness of ingredients. When it’s colder outside, your eyes might be drawn to the Mumbai Manhattan ($16, served on a tray with a second pouring and a selection of garnishes), with date-infused vermouth and East Indian sherry. When it’s warmer, you might go for the Ananga Ranga ($12)—a shaken cold mixture of fruits and florals that strongly encourages refreshment when the sun still hasn’t set. It’s base is rooh afza—a syrup of roots, flowers, herbs and vegetables that is traditionally poured over ice cream in India. Bar manager Roger Gross concocts his own, as he does many of the elements in his cocktails, controlling for texture as well as sweetness.

There are desserts you can eat and desserts you can drink, but a simple order of chai may be the ideal way to finish your Sherkaan experience, served hot and sweet with a side of packaged Parle-G biscuits, apparently a staple in India. Harpaldas instructed me to dip the biscuits right in—a traditional moment that a meal full of surprises had made unpredictable.

65 Broadway, New Haven (map)
Sun-Wed 11am-midnight, Thurs-Sat 11am-1am (kitchen closes an hour before COB)
(203) 405-5808

Written by David Zukowski. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2 features the Roasted Corn Chaat. Image 4 features the Mumbai Manhattan.

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