If Sherkaan, the name given the Indian restaurant that succeeded vegetarian Thali Too (2008-2018) in New Haven’s Broadway District in the space behind the Apple store, sounds strangely familiar, it should. The name is taken from Mowgli’s chief antagonist in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the sly Bengal tiger—Shere Khan.
Owners Ankit Harpaldas and Puneet “Pete” Ramchandani are experienced restaurateurs with a playful streak that runs as deep as the mean streak in Kipling’s menacing tiger. Harpaldas and Ramchandani also own Taprock Beer Bar & Refuge in the Unionville section of Farmington, a restaurant with an affinity for modern design, unusual drink options and quirky fun food sensibilities.
These components also can be found in Sherkaan. With design elements devised in consultation with New Haven’s Box 8 creative team and muralist Ben Keller, Harpaldas and Ramchandani wanted to convey a sense of the vibrant, colorful streets and alleys of India. After all, the restaurant itself is located up the pedestrian alley that connects Broadway Street to Yale’s Eero Saarinen-designed Ezra Stiles & Morse residential colleges. More rambunctious than menacing, the Sherkaan tiger, which I would characterize as halfway between Shere Khan and loveable Tigger from A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, can first be seen peering from a signboard at the end of the alley and later bounding on the windows and glass doors of the entry, where it appears trapped in the vestibule. Between these two incarnations of Sherkaan is a spacious patio with 13 tables, some sprouting sky-blue umbrellas.
The owners wished to pay homage to their Indian culture while making it approachable. In the bar area, just as sea stacks follow the angle of the plunging ridgeline from which they broke off ages ago, tall tables follow the slant of the artfully 45-degree-angled unoccupied bar chairs. On the high wall behind the long modern bar are two window arches and an intervening doorway brought from India, the door looking (with benefit of a couple of drinks) as if it might lead somewhere interesting if one could only open it. The hostess station is made of the repurposed front end of a Tata truck. A mural running behind the main dining area depicts commuters jammed onto a train, their bicycles hanging out its windows. Actual bicycles hang from the ceiling. But presiding over everything is a large mural on the rear brick wall of an Indian woman in customary garb unapologetically, almost challengingly, striking an immodest pose, perfectly capturing the juxtaposition of traditional and modern which the owners seek to embrace.
The drinks program is in the hands of highly regarded Roger Gross, a winner of Last Bartender Standing in the Las Vegas Best Bartender Competition—and it’s superb. We’ve joked about which chef one would kidnap for one’s desert island, but for the first time we start contemplating which mixologist. The intriguing craft cocktails list includes Noble Experiments with no booze ($3-$8), Gin & Tonics ($12), Punch ($10/$45-$11/$50), Spirit Forward ($11-$14), Hot Cocktails ($11, $5 without booze), Jugaad Cocktails ($14-$16, bottled, 1.5 servings) and Shook Ones ($10-$12). Each of the four of us selects a different cocktail, each is intrigued enough to try sips of the others’ cocktails and each is enamored enough of his or her own to enjoy every last drop. You probably have to be a cocktail major with a minor in Indian food to fathom them fully, but what I understand is great flavor, originality, balance and wanting to order a second round of the same drink.
From the Punch section, which can be ordered as individual drinks or bowls for five, our 1000 Petal Lotus ($10/$45) features New Amsterdam vodka, PAMA pomegranate liqueur, lemon, rosehip tea, Bittermens Burlesque Bitters and oleo saccharum. Our other three drinks come from the Shook Ones section. I Love You Like Gulab Jamun ($10), described as “ghee fat washed Sherkaan rum blend, dairy, pandan, pistachio orgeat,” cleverly invokes elements of the Indian dessert while working well as a drink. The Kheer Today Gone Tomorrow ($12), composed of “cashew Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Lustau East India Sherry, basmati horchata, rosewater,” is similarly successful. Finally, Sherkaan’s signature cocktail, Law of the Jungle ($12), utilizes “Privateer Silver Reserve Rum, Plantation 5 Year Rum, pineapple curry shrub, Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters, ginger, jaggery, lime, egg white” with the playful Sherkaan tiger dramatically etched into its egg white topping—a true showstopper. With each signature cocktail sold (this also includes, from the Spirit Forward section, The Rye of the Tiger, $12), $1 will be donated to Save Tigers Now.
Beer is something that obviously pairs well with Indian food, and while I might miss my Indian go-to for decades, a 22-ounce bottle of Taj Mahal, it seems a 12-ounce can of the Bengali Tiger American IPA ($6) by Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn would be an appropriate and delicious substitute. Indeed, Sherkaan’s craft beer selection is tremendous, both on draft ($6-$8) and in bottles and cans ($4-$8), with breweries like Counterweight, Two Roads, New England, Black Hog, Tröegs, Firefly, Goose Island, Sierra Nevada, Ballast, Grey Sail, Lagunitas and numerous others represented.
Plenty of thought has been given to wine as well. Each of Sherkaan’s 17 wines is available both by glass ($9-$13) and bottle ($33-$48). You may not think of Indian food as pairing well with wine, but it can, especially with varietals like Riesling and Shiraz that can stand up to the cuisine’s strong flavors. While neither grape, surprisingly, is represented on the list, wines like the 2015 Federalist Bourbon Barrel-Aged Zinfandel, Mendocino, California ($14-$48) can hold their own against Indian food, as can the two whites—a 2016 Evolucio Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary ($9/$33) and a 2017 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($11/$39)—we enjoy with our food.
But of course, an Elm City newcomer like Sherkaan must establish its reputation not just with its drinks but with its food. And what better way to establish street cred than with street food? Through a seasonally influenced menu of central and south Indian street snacks, Sherkaan seeks to combine authentic Indian flavors with contemporary scratch cooking practices and everyday ingredients. But don’t worry that this means Sherkaan will be Americanizing its food. Actually, quite the opposite, in addition to its more obviously Indian dishes, Sherkaan has great fun taking a handful of American dishes and Indianizing them. With the help of Taprock chef Bryan Burke, Harpaldas and Ramchandani have great fun smashing Connecticut’s stodgy Indian restaurant model and injecting new life into the Indian dining experience—and the results are terrific!
In my notes, I write “BRAVE CUISINE!” and there’s no question that Sherkaan’s menu is aimed at folks with open and adventurous palates. It contains a Hindi vocabulary section designed both to educate and amuse. You can learn that sev is a crispy chickpea noodle, that aloo is spiced potato, that dosas are like crêpes and that totally bindaas is slang for chill or the coolest. The menu is divided into Street Eats ($7-$12), Chaat ($7-$11), Salads ($7-$10), Share Plates ($12-$16) & Sides ($3-$4), including Chutneys ($3/three for $8), Pickles ($3) & Raita ($3/three for $8).
Modern and playful though the dining experience may be, it is nevertheless unmistakably Indian, from the stainless-steel water glasses to the brightly colored candied fennel seeds at the hostess station that folks grab as they depart as both a licoricey treat and digestive aid. But between the water pouring that starts our meal and the candied fennel seeds that punctuate our departure is a world of gustatory pleasures.
We want to try everything, but it isn’t possible. We hit the Street Eats hard. We start with a chicken frankie roll ($12), no chicken dog but a flaky paratha bread rolled around nicely seasoned chicken with Desi slaw, sliced jalapeño, raita and green chutney. The vegetarian version would be a bad spud frankie roll ($10) with eggy paratha, crispy aloo, Desi slaw, grated paneer and maggi ketchup. A little more frankfurter-like in appearance would be a chaat dog ($9) with vegetarian seekh kebab, mint raita, pomegranate seeds, chili garlic chutney, cilantro and sev (remember, crispy chickpea noodles)—except we cheat and upgrade ours with beautifully seasoned lamb seekh kebab (+$2).
Still mining the Street Eats, from a choice of squash dosa ($10), palak paneer dosa ($11) and shepherd’s dosa ($11), we order the last, sharing the enormous triangular crêpe-like creation filled with minced spiced lamb, sweet peas, smoked carrot and mint raita. We finish with an untidy Joseph, Sherkaan’s humorous take on a sloppy Joe and ever so much more interesting. A griddled bun is filled with minced spiced lamb and pickled onion, then topped with a perfectly fried egg.
We move on to the Chaat, which of course is street food, too. Okra fries ($7)—matchsticks of okra flavored with chaat masala and lemon—are an instant hit. Gobi pakora ($8)—arguably closer to gobi Manchurian, a popular Indochinese dish—are addictive pieces of chickpea-fried cauliflower coated in sweet sauce and drizzled with sweet yogurt and coconut habanero chutney. From similar roots, charcoal chicken ($9) is fried in spiced chickpea batter, coated in a sweet tangy tamarind sauce, strewn with crisp curry leaves and served with a ramekin of coconut chutney. The roasted corn chaat ($8) proves to be a bowlful of sweet roasted corn kernels with cucumber, tomato, black mustard seeds and pomegranate seeds.
But the most visually arresting chaat is the pani puri ($9), one of three kinds of puri offered. Few Connecticut restaurants allow their customers to experience these popular Indian street snacks. We’re presented with six round puri shells, the tops lopped off like eggshells from which a fledgling has escaped. Each shell is filled with chickpea, aloo and one’s choice of cucumber-, chili mint- or tamarind-flavored water. We opt for the chili-mint, which comes in a vial from which we fill our puri shells with the desired amount of liquid. It’s a delicious and interactive dish.
From three salads, we pick the kachcumber ($8), quartered slices of skin-on cucumber with cherry tomato, minced purple onion, sliced radish, green chili and cilantro in a terrific cumin-lime vinaigrette.
On to the Share Plates, which elsewhere might be considered entrées, but Sherkaan clearly seeks to encourage interactive dining experiences—and that doesn’t mean just with one’s food but with other members of one’s party, too. We share everything, because not to do so here would seem unconscionable.
Indianized shrimp and grits ($16) showcases five big gunpowder-spiced shrimp with squid ink upma, spectacular wilted leafy greens and lemon pickle. Bengals & ash ($14), a humorous take on bangers & mash, features flavorful lamb seekh kebab, tandoori oven-charred aloo, a fennel apple and radish salad, and lemon pickle. Everyone loves tender lamb shank ($16) falling of the bone and served with saffron rice, mint raita, diced apple pickle and roasted cashew. But our collective favorite might be the Indochinese pork ribs ($15) in a tamarind treacle glaze topped with crispy okra and served with sesame naan. Sherkaan serves four kinds of stuffed naan ($4), and while all sound good I intend to try the rosemary apricot on my next visit.
Any fan of Indian food looks forward to the exotic desserts. Sherkaan does not disappoint and throws in a few wrinkles of its own. Great for sharing is a chocolate dosa ($8) bedecked with grated coconut and pomegranate seeds. The gulab jamun ($6) features four dough balls drenched in rose syrup and garnished with grapefruit bits and crushed hazelnut. Mango ice cream ($7) is topped with ginger jaggery caramel syrup and ground pistachios. The baker among us describes the delicious pista burfi ($7) as “essentially bars of pistachio marzipan.” Our two Asian lasses order mango lassis ($6).
We bid our farewells to the solicitous staff, managed by highly capable David Mascolo. We exit, tossing candied fennel seeds back and concluding that Sherkaan is totally bindaas.