Sherkaan, or “tiger king,” is a word probably best known as a character in The Jungle Book, but many of the menu’s words at the restaurant of the same name may be less familiar to visitors. Helpfully, a section on their website (“If You Don’t Know, Now You Know”) provides a brief glossary for words like “sev” (crispy chickpea noodles) and “totally bindaas” — how the restaurant describes its own ethos: totally chill, the coolest. It was exactly this relaxed, nontraditional take on Indian food which brought us to this back-alley surprise in downtown New Haven.
The thing to know about Sherkaan is everyone involved — owner, chef and diners alike — is trying something new. There is none of the formal tikka, curry and red coats ambiance of British-inflected dining, and you will never see a steam tray, but instead you enter into a scrum of bicycles, face a Tata truck, a crowded train car, an elaborately carved wooden door. Street life and artistry, all around. The city food experience brought from India to the Elm City.
For owner Ankit Harpaldas, the restaurant industry is familiar, something his father did at Royal India in New Haven, and Hartford’s Dhaba Wala. When McGillicuddy’s bar closed in Farmington, Bryan Burke, a line cook with a head full of ideas at West Hartford’s Blue Plate Kitchen, came knocking. Burke mocked up a menu, Harpaldas made an offer, and Taprock Beer Bar & Refuge was born in the town’s Unionville section.
Within a few years, it was Harpaldas’ turn to make a pitch. “In 2018 Ankit found out the space that had been Thali Too on campus in New Haven was available, and we thought selling Yale on a restaurant was a good bet,” Burke says. “Ankit had been dreaming about making Indian food sexy again.”
The two set to work on a plan. “We wanted to serve people who know and love Indian food, but also didn’t want to scare away anyone new to it with 20-page menus. To provide something authentic done in an approachable way.”
The Street Eats section of Sherkaan’s menu includes possibly the most pervasive American street food ever, the hot dog, served as a lamb, chicken or vegetarian seekh kebab on a bun, drizzled with cucumber raita yogurt sauce, dry garlic chili chutney, pomegranate seeds, cilantro and crunchy sev. The chaat dog is like nothing else we’ve found in the state, and it’s just one example of how Harpaldas and Burke have created a new experience from the culinary treasure chest of South Asia.
For executive chef Burke, it was a steep learning curve. He first spent months at Dhaba Wala, replacing a cook who had returned to India, and at restaurants run by Harpaldas family friends. These kitchens were augmented by those in extended Harpaldas family homes, with Harpaldas’ wife, Prianca, and “cooking with all the aunties,” Burke says. “That, and a tall stack of cookbooks.”
The mix of influences brought together just the right notes for the new Indian concept.
Inventing new forms from traditional materials becomes thematic as you step off Broadway between the Apple and Yale Book stores and into the courtyard of Sherkaan’s patio. You are surrounded on two sides by the neo-Gothic walls of the Ezra Stiles and Morse college dormitories, designed by Eero Saarinen (who is also responsible for Yale hockey’s Ingalls Rink, along with the TWA terminal at JFK, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch). Saarinen designed the dorms without a single right angle. Sherkaan harmonizes with its food.
Dahi vada — subtle, doughy lentil dumplings often served steaming — are offered cold and refreshing on a warm summer night, covered with raita and bright highlights of green and tamarind chutneys. Each soft little ball is dusted with a topping of sev, a sensory counterpoint of crunch to the cool and spicy dish.
The cocktail menu receives no less transformative gesticulation than the food, including garam masala in the Rye of the Tiger, and the Bindaas Burns — with whiskey, orange Curaçao, and saffron-infused vermouth — the fresh orange flavor blending with the deeper herbal oil of vermouth for an eye-opening start to the evening.
My dining companion chooses a Passion Project mocktail with passion fruit, wild guava tea, and lime from the non-alcoholic offerings of the cocktail program created by Roger Gross (Highland Brass Co., Ordinary, Elm City Social), which is deep enough to organize drinks by category.
A bubbly Street Spritz pairs Jin Jiji Indian gin with Aperol, citrus and prosecco. The shaken Wing Commander Sharma goes tropical with pineapple-infused gin, passion fruit, pistachio orgeat, velvet falernum, and tiki bitters. Punches like the Gully Juice 2.0 with Collective Arts plum and blackthorn gin, blue jasmine organic tea, berry and lime oleo saccharum, and spiced cranberry bitters can be ordered singly, or in bowl if parties of five or more want to put on their internal dancing shoes.
“A big part of what we do is getting everyone who comes in to feel comfortable, and it’s just such a massive culture to draw from,” Burke says. “Being an outsider may have given me an edge with some aspects of the cuisine because I’ve always had this desire to find ways to get people to try new foods, to try and lure them out of their comfort zone without even realizing it.”
The chicken seekh kebab is a recommended start from the tandoor. An excellent char provides a savory crust over a huge hit of cumin and a more subtle and lingering heat to these grilled skewers of ground chicken. A larger dish than expected for just $9, they arrive with ramekins of green chili curry, an addictive garlic curry, and tamarind chutney.
The baingan bharta — with smoked eggplant, roasted tomato, and cauliflower over basmati rice — hews more closely to the familiar, including rewarding crunches of crispy chickpeas along the way.
Chelsea Bowler, bar manager and shape shifter of all things necessary at Sherkaan, arrives with a suggested drink during this course: an Esteban’s Sangria punch, including rosé, tequila and pamplemousse for a hit of grapefruit-tinted sweetness.
“Some of the dishes aren’t meant to be taken seriously — it’s Ankit, me, all of us having fun, like the chaat dog,” Burke explains, “Others, the dahi puri? That’s the way it’s served off the streetside in India. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“Some Americans have these preconceived notions of Indian food as spicy, ‘so hot, it’s all you taste,’ but one of the first things I do with new hires is get across all the flavors: ground spices, whole spices, how we temper the spices, flash-frying releasing aromatics. It’s not just a menu with one to five peppers next to every line. The flavors, the aromas, they have to be authentic to the dish.”
Burke tells us they’ve had massive support from the Yale community and New Haven residents from the day Sherkaan opened. A skeleton crew churned takeout, delivery and family-dinner orders throughout 2020–21. When restrictions lifted, he reports the restaurant was immediately busier than they had ever been. “We have people come in and say they drove from New York to eat here, people who call me out of the kitchen to tell me our palak paneer tastes like home. It’s all been so encouraging, such a learning experience.”
Burke says he learns from the staff, from their histories with Indian food, even as he coaches them into a cohesive kitchen. “We dose up the food with local vegetables, we make our own samosas, we put a lot of care in the preparation. It’s been a surprise to some of our staff who’ve worked at other Indian places, making everything here. I mean, we go through a literal ton of onions a week. The amount of labor is massive.”
Burke pauses. In the brief silence I think about the bicycles hung from Sherkaan’s ceiling, the murals of the train car and the woman who gazes from the wall at diners as they enter this environment, celebrating the culture of a place across the globe. He comes back. “I’m trying to recreate the attention and the love in the food of Indian home cooking.”
65 Broadway, New Haven (behind the Yale Bookstore)
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Wed.–Mon. Closed Tue.