The 'curry queen' of Lyme brings new flavor to Old Saybrook

Jul. 20—OLD SAYBROOK — It's the most popular item on her menu, but finance analyst turned restaurateur Nalini Srinivasan has never tasted chicken tikka masala.

Still, it was a plate of those moist chunks of chicken, marinated in a spiced sauce, that she asked chef Navin Mishra to prepare for The Day on Tuesday along with steamed basmati rice. She observed that chicken tikka masala originated in the United Kingdom.

"This is the most favorite of all Westerners," the Lyme resident said.

Less than a month into her new career as the owner of Curry Queen on Elm Street, Srinivasan said her goal is to serve the dishes people know and love while working to expand their palates.

Srinivasan said her affinity for South Indian food — with its reliance on the lentils so prevalent in the region from which she emigrated as teenager roughly 60 years ago — is one of the things that makes her restaurant different from others in the area. She envisions hosting some variation of a "South Indian Saturday" event each week to highlight her homestyle cuisine.

She referred to masala dosa as a prominent example of South Indian fare, describing a flat, gluten-free pancake of lentils and rice stuffed with potatoes.

It's a new career path for the woman with two masters' degrees in finance who started out with the World Bank Group as an operations specialist in Washington, D.C., and Russia. She went on to become a budget analyst for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, retiring from the federal agency in 2015. Her husband, prominent Indian economist and professor T.N. Srinivasan, died three years later.

Navin, her young protege who came to Curry Queen by way of Mumbai, India, and Omni Homestead Resort in Virginia, lives with Srinivasan in Lyme. She said she is advising him in both "chefery" and business management, teaching him about the exact proportion of spices needed to get a dish just right and how to balance the books.

She said she can see Navin taking over for her in about five years. He's working seven days a week right now to get the business off the ground.

"It's easy to grow in America," Navin said from the new kitchen with its stainless steel equipment long delayed by supply chain shortages. "People say it's the land of dream, and it's actually true. If you work hard."

Another of her seven employees is Hayatullah Popal, an Afghan refugee living in Old Lyme with his family of five. She said he brings familiarity with the tandoor oven used in both Afghanistan and India as he fires up the hot clay oven to bake unleavened flatbread and to grill meat marinated in uniquely Indian combinations of spices.

The restaurant opened for dining last week after several weeks of serving takeout from the space that used to host a fireplace showroom. Now, the brick over the remaining fireplace is adorned with traditional Indian garlands of yellow flowers and jasmine.

She said the flowers and the Ganesh elephant statue at the base of the fireplace represent success, ethical business practices and good wishes for the future.

Photos from a ribbon cutting ceremony last weekend show a red and yellow garland around the neck of special guest Jacques Pepin. The legendary French chef joined Srinivasan after a chance encounter years ago at Union Station in New Haven while she was in a wheelchair with a broken leg.

Srinivasan said Pepin's words of encouragement about recovering from injury — he himself had sustained life-threatening injuries in a car crash — led to culinary advice and a promise to attend the ribbon cutting for what was then her hazy idea for a new restaurant.

"And that was two years ago, because I was so optimistic we were going to open right away. Well, we didn't," she said. "Two years later, I called him again and I said 'well, it's finally happened.'"

Srinivasan credited the Connecticut Small Business Development Center with helping her to turn vision to reality. The government funded group, hosted at the University of Connecticut, was created to offer free advising services to small businesses.

Advisor Steven Semaya, who serves as the center's associate director, said he had to reset Srinivasan's expectations early on when it came to just how quickly she'd be able to open the doors of Curry Queen. He described it as a time- and labor-intensive process that includes writing a business plan, getting the loan closed, converting the building to a restaurant and hiring staff.

He said it's a full-time job to open a business, just as it is to run one.

"She is tireless," he said.

Srinivasan said she got a small business loan for $1.2 million to supplement $500,000 of her own money. She described it as all her savings.

"Because my whole point is, hey, this is my last hurrah," she said. "I'm not taking it with me."

Srinivasan expressed a sense of pride in surviving the business-building process. She laughed at the surprise from those in her Indian ladies club when she made it through. Some thought she should be taking it easy in her retirement.

"I kept saying, 'resting for what?' I'm waiting for death. I'd rather be working and waiting," she said.

Semaya advised those who visit the new restaurant to seek out its owner.

"They have to meet Nalini," he said. "She's the energy and heart of the place. She really is the Curry Queen."