Reach new heights of flavor at Himalaya Cafe
Recent trips to Himalaya Café in Old Saybrook have taught me a few things: paneer is excellent when it’s grilled; falooda is a very interesting Indian dessert; and very, very nice and talented people are in charge of the place.
Himalaya Café is right next door to Shakahari, a vegetarian Indian restaurant that is similarly wonderful, in an otherwise nondescript little plaza on Boston Post Road. It used to be fronted by an Allstate office, and now a cheery statue of Ganesha and potted plants and flowers greet visitors to the café — and that, my friends, is a massive improvement. A step inside Himalaya Café reveals a cozy, welcoming dining room bedecked with soft chairs, rough-wood tables, a beautiful bar, and culturally descriptive décor. Meanwhile, projected onto one wall of the restaurant are programs and films about Indian culture. On one visit, a Bollywood film splashed across the wall in dazzling color. Most recently, short animated documentaries about various Indian foods were the focus — hence, my new knowledge of falooda, a cold dessert traditionally made of rose syrup, vermicelli, sweet basil seeds, and pieces of jelly with milk (per a double-check on Wikipedia).
We stayed on the more familiar side of Indian cuisine and started with some basics — Chicken Vindaloo (medium spice; $13.95) and Aloo & Paneer Matar (also medium spice; $11.95). A note on those spice levels: I can take a bit of heat, so I figured medium spice would be just right for me and my fire-breathing husband. We both found Himalaya’s medium spice level on these dishes to be a little spicier than the word “medium” indicates to most; if you are spice sensitive, go with the mild for starters and judge future orders accordingly.
However, spiciness did not impede our enjoyment of dinner. I love anything with paneer (a spiced cheese cube) in it, and I’ve never encountered it paired with potatoes (aloo) in matar sauce in the past. The two went well together, thanks in part to the wildly flavorful matar base (generally, a tomato-based sauce with garam masala and other spices and a bit of cream) and its accompanying spice kick. Our potatoes were chopped into rough chunks about the same size as the paneer cubes (smaller than a standard ice cube), which made for a toothy, hearty meal on a rainy evening. It was even better with the sesame naan ($4) I ordered. Himalaya’s naan is less pillowy soft than some I’ve encountered, but no worries there. The sesame seeds added a wonderful touch of crunch and roasty flavor, and the naan served quite well as a dipping device.
Our chicken vindaloo did not disappoint either. Bright fiery red and stewed with chunked veggies, the oh-so-tender cubes of chicken were drenched in spicy flavor that unfolded in waves: first bright and tangy, then more savory notes, and then the spice kick (and resulting spice sweats).
We had a similar experience with the dish that emerged our second favorite of the lot: paneer tikka ($8.50), grilled paneer cubes marinated in spices and an outstanding house barbecue-esque sauce served with fire-roasted peppers and onions. With the first bite, we encountered an almost citrus-y brightness, then smoky flavors from the grill, and then hints of flavor from the veggies. We went with mild spice level this time, and it suited us just fine. We asked our server about the marinade, and she described it as something similar to a barbecue sauce preparation with a secret ingredient that even she doesn’t know. The citrus note I tasted reminded me of Trader Joe’s spicy yuzu sauce, if that’s any indicator to the TJ’s fans out there. In any case, it was excellent and highly recommended.
Ditto for the Chef’s Special Curry with lamb ($13.95), one of our two main entrees on another night and our favorite overall. The menu describes the curry as a mixture of onions, ginger, garlic, green chili, and herbs and spices. We suspect one of those spices is cardamom or clove, because that rich, semi-sweet flavor is the first to emerge from the sauce. And then it’s all about the expertly prepared, soft and tender, very delicious lamb. Once we recovered from the lamb’s overall excellence, we came to find the curry sauce more than a lamb-delivery system spiced with something like cardamom. It was sweet and spicy but, despite our choice of medium spice level, not too spicy — just a belly-warming pleasure.
My choice, the Yellow Tadka Dhal ($10.95), proved more conservative than the Chef’s Special, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. I believe you really can’t go wrong with yellow lentils simmered in tomatoes, onion, garlic and ginger, and paired with the perfect basmati rice that comes with all entrees at Himalaya, it makes for a hearty meal with comfort-food cred. The garlic emerged the strongest flavor in the mix, which provided welcome flavor structure to a fairly starchy dish. It was even better the next day, after the spices had time to sit and get acquainted in the refrigerator.
Luckily for us, there is still much to be learned from the chefs and staff at Himalaya (the tamarind margarita we saw on special for starters), and it will be an educational experience we will enjoy in the not too distant future.
If you go
1456 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook
Cuisine: Classic and contemporary Indian food; lunch available; full bar
Atmosphere: Charming, with much care taken on the details. Check out the rough-hewn wooden tables and cozy bar area. Great place for a date.
Service: Warm, welcoming, and efficient
Prices: On the cheaper side of moderate; the priciest dish is the Himalaya Mixed Grill of three chicken and lamb dishes for $17.95
Accessibility: Sturdy ramp to the front door; interior is neither cramped nor particularly large
Hours: Tuesday and Sunday, noon-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Closed Monday.
Credit cards: Accepted
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