Utsav Indian Cuisine, Wethersfield

In 2008 chef Antony Parapilly and Thankachan Joseph opened Utsav, a tasty Indian eatery in Vernon. Both men had worked at the renowned Coromandel in Fairfield County, and in 2014 — together with another Coromandel alumnus, Pravin Dabre — they opened a second Utsav, in Wethersfield.

The restaurant is larger than the original, and gaudier. A serpentine entry walkway, with dazzling chrome railings, winds past splashing fountains and pools filled with koi fish. Lighting in the bar pulses pink and green. The dining room’s wainscoting is studded with a veritable forest of dried whitened branches, lending a weird, ghostly effect.

None of this should distract you from food that is a big cut above routine Indian dining. The pleasures began right away with highly competent renditions of some favorite appetizers. Shaam savera — Hindi for “evening” and “morning” — consists of four cylindrical dumplings artfully constructed of spinach wrapped around paneer, then propped on end around a miniature timbale of rice topped with peas set in a creamy tomato puree.

We also enjoyed lasun gobi, cauliflower florets fried with ginger and scallions in a tomato-soy dressing touched with vinegar and sugar.

A starter of shrimp badami (from a Hindi word meaning reddish brown) wasn’t on the menu, but the kitchen made it on request, and I was glad — five shrimp laid out in a crescent and covered with a densely flavored, thick, cinnamon-inflected sauce, almost a ragu, topped with cracked almonds. An order of ragada patties, a popular Delhi street snack, proved disappointing, the grilled potato patties lost beneath a big tumble of chickpeas. But a platter of tandoori chicken wings was a dazzling genre-crosser, coated in yogurt, lemon juice and spices, then grilled black like jerk chicken and nestled in a hash of sauteed carrots, onions and cabbage.

Chef Parapilly’s large menu focuses on the cuisines of Southern India, in particular the states of Kerala, Andra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Cooking from this region highlights stews made with sambar powder, tamarind, black pepper and ginger; coconut is ubiquitous, and so are dried curry leaves, with their signature bitter, smoky, vaguely citrusy tang. Accordingly, we bypassed the tried-and-true vindaloos and tikka masalas in order to focus on less familiar dishes.

Utsav means “festival,” and the restaurant’s fare showcases the celebratory aspect of Indian culture. A vegetarian entree called avial, for instance, figures in the Keralan vegetarian feast called the Sadya, and reflects a story from Hindu myth about a novice cook in the royal court who, finding the pantry insufficiently stocked for any single dish, chopped up all available veggies and fashioned an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink option. And so it is, a jumble of potato, carrot, yam, banana, eggplant and squash. It’s not a pretty dish, the porridge-like combination of yogurt and coconut paste camouflaging the veggies. But it tastes fine, emanating both cumin and an intense flavor of curry leaves.

Despite alarming illustrations of double chili peppers scattered across the menu, Utsav keeps the heat burners low unless you request otherwise (beware, though; the plates themselves are very hot!). Hottest among the main courses we ordered was a chili-stoked chicken dish from Andhra Pradesh — chunks of tandoor-cooked chicken breast jumbled together with red onion, green bell pepper, sesame seed, cilantro and curry leaves. Aglow with a tinge of turmeric, and almost as sweet as it was fiery hot, it tasted fabulous. Slightly less fiery, and almost as good, was chicken Chettinad, the specialty of Chennai, in a lavish, ginger-stoked gravy thickened with mustard and coarsely ground black pepper.

Southern Indian cooking keeps seafood in the center of the picture. A fish curry featuring mango and coconut milk was sweet but bland, and might be improved by use of a more flavorful fish than tilapia. Tawa kekraa jinga (“tawa” refers to the wok-like concave griddle) consisted of fried prawns topped with a spice-infused, baked crabmeat, picked and heaped into almost a crab slaw, making for an unusual presentation and consistency.

Star of the evening was another Andhra dish, lamb mamsum koora. Though traditionally made with mutton, Utsav’s version substitutes tenderer lamb (eaters undeterred by bones can choose a goat-meat variant) and cooks it with onions and bell peppers in a roasted coconut peanut masala with ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and a medium dosing of hot chilies.

We attacked all of these dishes with rice and bread, beginning with a big balloon of poori. The Hindenburg of breads is always a showstopper at the table, though hard to prepare without a lot of oiliness. But the garlic naan was superb, fired in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven to black-edged perfection.

I often avoid Indian desserts, but Utsav will make the doubter reconsider. All proved satisfying. A crème brûlée, its creamy richness cut with the edgier flavors of ginger and cardamon. Garam thanda, a kind of deconstructed carrot cake served in a bowl with vanilla ice cream. An excellent mango kulfi. These flavorful and fragrant desserts go well with a round of tawny port or Somrus, the cream liqueur known as the Bailey’s of India, with its sweet aromas of pistachio, almond, cardamom and rosewater.

Service at Utsav is uniformly skilled and gracious. One caution, however: Unless you are NBA height, you should stick with the rectangular booths and avoid the lovely-looking circular banquettes, where the seats are way too low. Or are the tables too high? Either way, you feel as if someone should be tying on a bib and feeding you with a spoon. Such comical indignities do a disservice to the enjoyable and wholly grown-up dining experience on offer at Utsav.

1115 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield * 860-563-1818 * www.utsavct.com * 4 stars


THE SPACE Seating for 100 in a big square room notable for glitzy and idiosyncratic design features.

THE CROWD — Predominantly Indian and Indian-American, always a good sign.

THE BAR — Seating for 10 at a small bar backlit in shifting pink and green hues. Happy Hour, weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m., features $4 beer, $6 wine, $7 cocktails, and $6 - $7 bar snacks. An eclectic wine list includes 18 wines by the glass, from $8 to $10, and 50 by the bottle, from $30 to $98.

THE BILL — Appetizers, soups and salads, $3.50 to $13.95; main courses, $16.95 to $32.95; bread, $3.95 to $6.50; desserts $5.95 to $6.95.

WHAT WE LIKED — Shaam savera, lasun gobi, shrimp badami, tandoori chicken wings, vegetable avial, Andhra chicken, chicken Chettinad, tawa kekraa jinga, lamb mamsum koora, garlic naan, cardamom crème brûlée, garam thanda, mango kulfi.

NOISE LEVEL Quiet and civilized.

IF YOU GO — Lunch (buffet and full menu available): Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair access through front door. Free parking in strip-mall lot outside the restaurant.

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