Sunday, July 24, 2011
It's always exciting when a new vegetarian restaurant opens, and when it just happens to be in downtown New Haven, I feel as if all my culinary prayers have been answered. So, when Red Lentil opened its doors a couple of weeks ago, my expectations were as high as my appetite.
I've been there twice now, once for lunch on opening day and once for dinner a week later, and my experiences were dramatically different. I'm hoping that as the kitchen staff and servers get accustomed to the menu, the end result will be more consistently positive. I really want them to succeed in this difficult location so that I can have a restaurant to take family and friends who come to visit, and that I can happily recommend to anyone contemplating a vegan diet.
On my first visit, I met a friend for a late lunch on opening day, and we sampled several appetizers from the extensive menu. Sweet Potato Fries always tempt me, so I had to try their "Belgian Fries" since I was curious to see how they compared to other dining establishments' versions.
The large portion arrived at our table with a smokey barbecue sauce for dipping. I was eagerly anticipating that first crunch, but I'm disappointed to say that these must have been sitting for awhile after coming out of the oven (they were baked, not fried) because they were lukewarm and soggy. The outside had gotten chewy and tough, and the sauce just clung desperately to the limp fry.
We moved on to the Gobi Manchurian, a chickpea batter-fried cauliflower with mildly spicy red sauce. Although this was flavorful, it also suffered form that texture of sogginess. It's a hefty portion, too, and could easily make for a filling entree.
We were also curious to try the Beet and Sweet Potato Latke, which was served with a handful of mesclun greens and topped by an apricot sauce and a cilantro sauce. Again, I was assuming these would be pan-fried and crisp, but instead there was that soggy theme. It's really too bad because these could have been delicious if they had been served straight from the pan.
For my second visit, I met a large group of vegan friends for a 6:00 dinner.* We ordered several appetizers, including the Gobi Manchurian, which I'm happy to say arrived hot and the cauliflower still had some crispy crunch. Other apps sampled were the Nachos (can be made vegan with Daiya cheese), Bruschetta (pretty presentation), and the Latkes (still soggy).
The most popular entree choice of the evening was the Pistachio and Herb Encrusted Tofu with Corn Cake, which came accompanied by a cilantro chutney. This looked and tasted delicious.
Another favorite was the Shepherd's Pie, which was a generous portion topped by a vegan bechamel sauce and drizzle of balsamic reduction. I heard that it was filling and flavorful, though perhaps a little too sagey.
I was intrigued by the Millet Loaf with Ethiopian Spiced Tempeh and Carrot Sage Bechamel. This also was a big stack submerged in a rich and flavorful sauce. Although it was delicious, I am just now noting that the promised "Summer Ratatouille" accompaniment was nowhere to be found on the plate. huh. Not only that, but I'm also realizing that all of the entrees were lacking significant portions of vegetables. strange.
Several of our dining guests ordered desserts, but since none of the cakes were gluten-free, I had to pass. The crowd favorite was the Carrot Cake, although everyone agreed it was more like a "tease cake" since there was more frosting than cake, though it was nonetheless delicious. Others tried the Pistachio Cake (good, but more like a vanilla cake with crushed pistachios on top) and the Triple Chocolate Cake (which seemed to be missing a couple chocolates).
*All in all, the second time around was an enjoyable dining experience. I put an asterisk there because some friends who dined on the same night but arrived later in the evening were very disappointed by confused wait staff, poor quality of food, and warm water in their glasses. Again, I hope this is just a matter of working out the kinks because inconsistencies like this make me uncomfortable recommending this restaurant. If you're thinking of trying it, I'd say give it another couple of weeks and be sure to go early.