Every day, thousands of people drive past Park Place shopping center on their way to Park West Village, the much newer, grander retail and residential complex just on the other side of Cary Parkway.
More than a few of those people would no doubt kick themselves if they knew that, since last September, they’ve been driving past Swagat, a hidden gem of an Indian restaurant with an internationally acclaimed chef.
Chef Durga Prasad’s 40-plus year career has taken him all over the world, from the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi to the Crowne Plaza in Bangkok to the renowned Tamarind in New York. In his scrapbook, among the many press clippings, award certificates and letters of appreciation he has collected, are photos of the chef rubbing elbows with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Bill Clinton.
Locally, Prasad was the opening chef at the upscale Raaga, and worked at Chefs of India before taking the helm in the Swagat kitchen.
The extensive menu of mostly northern Indian fare is loaded with obvious signs of an experienced and confident chef at work. Four lobster preparations, for starters, include a lobster masala in a fragrant tomato cream sauce whose spices don’t upstage the star ingredient.
The tandoori offering goes well beyond the usual suspects to include an even dozen options. Chicken tikka won’t let you down, nor will any of the other familiar favorites. But if you’re in the mood for a little something different, you’ve come to the right place. Try tandoor-smoked and roasted king prawns, or Hariyali chicken kebab, which gets its characteristic green color and distinctive flavor from an herb-and-yogurt marinade.
Or go for broke (at $25, they’re the most expensive items on the menu) with tandoori grilled scallops, or with a quartet of lamb chops, marinated with fresh ginger and spices before getting roasted to a juicy turn in the clay oven.
That’s not to say you have to shell out the big bucks to enjoy a memorable meal at Swagat. The overwhelming majority off the nearly 70 entree listings will set you back $16 or less, and most starters are in the $5 to $7 range. The 16 dishes I sampled over the course of two meals barely scratched the surface of the possibilities, and the only one that struck me as less than a bargain was $4 for a dessert order of just two small pieces of gulab jamun.
That feels like nitpicking when I recall the best tandoori chicken I’ve had in recent memory — half a bird and a pile of sizzling peppers and onions on a cast iron skillet for $14. Or the lamb vindaloo, on point in every aspect from the lean and tender chunks of lamb to the spicy vinegar-tinged bite of the gravy. Or Swagat special biryani, a generous molded cylinder of basmati rice redolent of curry spices, riddled with morsels of lamb, chicken, shrimp and vegetables.
You’ll find the usual suspects among the 15 vegetarian entree listings, as well as a few pleasant surprises. Palak corn is a refreshing change of pace from the perennially popular spinach dish, palak paneer. Punjabi kadhi serves up chickpea fritters in an earthy turmeric-tinted curry, garnished with fresh ginger and cilantro. Bhindi masala is India’s spice-perfumed answer to the Southern classic, stewed okra and tomatoes. Unlike the Southern dish, bhindi masala isn’t slimy.
What about starters, you ask? Vegetable pakoras – bite size nibbles of potato, eggplant, cauliflower and onion fried in a gram flour batter – come with a shredded cabbage and yogurt salad that could pass for a creamy American slaw (but which owner Harinder Singh, a veteran restaurateur who has owned several area restaurants, assures me is Indian in origin).
Chicken 65, a shareable starter of spicy fried nuggets spangled with curry leaves, is exemplary. So is cauliflower Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese curveball that serves up a mound of florets, deep-fried and sautéed in a medley of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chiles, under a shower of chopped cilantro and green onion.
Durga Prasad’s long experience working at a high level is also evident in attention to the little details that often get overlooked elsewhere. Details such as the foil-wrapped bones of the lamb chops. And the poori that is rushed to the table before the deep-fried whole flatbread, which emerges from the fryer puffed up with trapped steam, has a chance to deflate.
A well-trained wait staff deserve part of the credit for that last feat. Reserved by American standards, servers don’t hover or repeatedly stop by to see how you’re enjoying you meal. They’re attentive, though, and you can count on getting their attention when you need to.
Swagat’s dining room isn’t fancy — certainly not as posh as at some of the restaurants where Prasad has worked. It’s a casually inviting contemporary space, accented by a colorful, display of glassware, gleaming on shelves set into a partition wall. Still, there’s no question that this hidden gem owes most of its sparkle to its chef.
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9549 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: low
Service: reserved but attentive
Recommended: cauliflower Manchurian, chicken 65, Punjabi kadhi, lobster masala, lamb vindaloo, tandoori dishes, Swagat special biryani
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; lunch buffet; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.