MANCHESTER, NH – Ritu Harlalka is still getting used to the new neighborhood – for seven years she’s operated a successful vegetarian Indian restaurant in Burlington, Mass. – so successful that she thought it was time to expand. She chose Manchester’s West Side, where she opened Ritu’s Spice Utsav (“celebration”) softly on Jan. 20.
So far, the reception has been encouraging.
“We have a lot of options for gluten-free and vegan,” says Ritu.
The immediate appeal in a city already on the map for its international cuisine options is being a vegetarian restaurant – catering to vegetarians instead of offering a few select meat-free options is a huge deal. But also, Ritu takes pride in designing dishes that represent all regions of India, and with every dish, her focus is on fresh.
“I describe it as home-style cooking. The atmosphere at the Burlington restaurant is more cafeteria-style, but it was an immediate hit with those looking for an authentic taste of home,” says Ritu.
She and her husband came to the U.S. from Calcutta in 1998 and Ritu started a home-based catering business as a way to stay home with the kids. It took off – so much so, that she needed more work space to meet the demand. So she opened Ritu’s Ki Rasoi (“kitchen) in Burlington in 2011.
“The scary part was opening the first restaurant. Cooking from home, I knew what I was doing. Once you open the doors of a restaurant, you have no idea if the people will come,” says Ritu, a cheery smile betraying her sense of confidence in being a seasoned restaurateur.
They not only came, but often the line at Ritu’s Ki Rasoi extends out the door, and the wait for a table can be 40 minutes.
She’s hoping for a similar following in Manchester.
In seven years she’s built a loyal following, finding many New Hampshire customers were making the hour drive to Burlington in search of Indian cuisine that is not only authentic, but creative, flavorful, and “light.” Ritu explains that in less attentive hands, too often, Indian food can be greasy.
“Here I wanted to create a different type of space, where people could sit down and have a nice meal,” says Ritu.
The new restaurant, located in the Hampshire Square Plaza on South Main Street, offers a more elegant yet relaxed setting. It is warm and welcoming, and while it still features her notorious regional Indochinese-fusion buffet items, she’s also developed a menu that includes dishes representing both northern and southern Indian cuisine.
SLIDESHOW by MAHAL PHOTOS
During a recent visit to Ritu’s Spice Utsav with my friend, Krithika Mahalingam and Mark Irivinti as my food translation guides, I got to sample a number of dishes – from the first bite of what was probably my favorite dish, raj kachori chaat – a traditional street food for which Ritu insists on fresh-made dipping sauces – to the sweet ending that included syrupy bite-sized gulab jamun, and a warm dish of vellam pongal with toasted cashews. In between I discovered the joy of the red chili “gun powder” seasoning and beet root in the crepe-like adai dosa, the just spicy enough cut mirchi (stuffed jalepeño appetizer) to the various versions of naan, a flatbread staple used for dipping and transporting savory bites, from plate to mouth.
“My husband teases me that with this restaurant, I’ve reached Nirvana,” says Ritu, an accusation she’s not disputing. I mention how relaxed she seems to be, venturing into the Manchester restaurant scene, which has been known to make or break even the most experienced entrepreneurs.
“In the last seven years I’ve learned that customers come and go, and sometimes a staff person doesn’t show up, but there’s no point in getting upset about the things you can’t control. I’m focused on preparing the best food I can. Starting a new restaurant, you forget how it is to wait for people to find you,” Ritu says. “But they’re finding us.”
Ritu’s Spice Utsav, 484 S. Main St., Manchester, 603-836 5652.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday : Lunch – 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner – 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Reservations accepted for large parties, but not required..