Diners have been asking Prasad Chirnomula to head north for years. But the Fairfield County-based chef and restaurateur, who has earned enthusiastic praise for his restaurants in New Haven, New Canaan and Ridgefield, thought Hartford County was too far for expansion and considered New York as his next target market.
When a lease opportunity opened up in West Hartford, he reconsidered, noting that many of his New Haven guests were driving down regularly from the Hartford region. Chirnomula's latest venture, INDIA, opens Friday, Dec. 16, at 54 Memorial Road in Blue Back Square.
"I'm ready for West Hartford and hopefully West Hartford's ready for me," he said.
The 51-seat intimate space features a small bar area and an open kitchen, with a modern red, black and white color scheme and a special touch of décor: Chirnomula's mother's sari, which graces the back dining room.
In Southern Connecticut, Chirnomula's Thali restaurants have received acclaim for a unique fine-dining take on traditional Indian cuisine. New Haven's Thali Too offers an all-vegetarian menu, and he has even delved into authentic Mexican fare with Oaxaca Kitchen in the Elm City, inspired by his travels and study in the region of southwestern Mexico. In April, he opened INDIA in New Canaan, with a traditional Indian menu supplemented with Western-influenced small plates.
West Hartford's menu reflects many of INDIA New Canaan's offerings, with an even larger focus on small plates, Chirnomula said, adding that he wanted people to taste their way through items without necessarily feeling like they have to commit to a full meal.
The exotic dishes ($6 to $17) are divided into vegetarian, seafood and meat categories, ranging from classic potato-and-pea filled samosas and masala dosas to street foods like paani poori (semolina puffs filled with chickpeas, potatoes and mint extract); goat "tacos" on housemade roti, Portuguese-style shrimp "piri piri" and coconut and lemon-inflected Konkan lump crab, tempered with mustard seed. Others feature tandoori-grilled proteins: lamb chops, chicken kebabs and marinated chicken wings.
"Classic fare entrees" and kebab dishes ($17.50 to $34) are instantly recognizable: tandoori chicken, tikka masala, vindaloo, korma and biryani, with choice of protein. With an entire dedicated section of vegetarian main courses ($8 for a side to $16 for a full portion) centered on lentils, eggplant, okra, potatoes and cauliflower, Chirnomula calls INDIA's options "paradise" for non-meat-eaters, but says they're appealing and satisfying for all.
"You don't realize you're missing meat," he said. "The flavors are so bold." Chirnomula says he's committed to using local produce on the West Hartford menu as he does at INDIA New Canaan, particularly during abundant growing seasons.
The menu is complemented by a carefully chosen wine list, with options by the glass and bottle, along with bottled beers and ciders and a few signature cocktails, like the "Faithfully Ginger" with gin, elderflower liqueur, ginger, lime and turmeric.
Chirnomula said that after spending significant time in West Hartford planning the restaurant, he's been inspired by the energy of the town.
"It's booming," he said. "No matter where I go, there's happy people, the restaurants are packed. … I started really loving this place so much. I think people have expectations and I've got to really live up to them the best I can."
INDIA will serve just dinner at first; lunch service will begin Dec. 24. A Sunday brunch launches on Christmas Day, which he describes as a "fun" sit-down menu with more small, affordable plates like crepes, omelets, kebabs and breads.
Chirnomula hopes the creativity and distinctiveness of his menu will attract and retain a food-loving Hartford-area crowd.
"The best comment I'm getting [is that] there's nothing like this in town," he said. "If people are willing to try, I've got so many other things I can start creating."
INDIA, 54 Memorial Road, West Hartford, opens Dec. 16 at 5 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 8:30 p.m. Lunch, beginning on Dec. 24, runs from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sunday brunch, starting Dec. 25, will run from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Happy hour will be available 7 days a week from 5 to 7 p.m. 860- 726-4103, facebook.com/INDIArestaurantandbar.