Lauterborn Blog Search

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Twinkling Light in the Heart of Westport

A Twinkling Light 
in the Heart of Westport:
Thali Offers Delectable 
Indian Cuisine
(Appeared in Nov. issue of Fairfield County Life magazine)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved

Westport, CT – “Thali” is basically a platter of food served at many Indian festivals and special occasions and typically contains several small containers of appetizers, adding up to a complete meal. In much the same way, Thali restaurant at 376 Post Road East in Westport offers diners a broad, highly satisfying palette of taste experiences.

Tagged as a venue providing “regional cuisine of India”, Thali Westport is the latest addition to owner/chef Prasad Chirnomula’s family of restaurants. Opened in March 2010, it is his sixth eatery in operation, with an additional New Haven location in development. Venues include Thali Ridgefield, Thali New Haven (Orange Street), Thali Too (Broadway, New Haven), Thali New Canaan and Chao Chi in Sandy Hook.

Chirnomula, 47, says he has always loved Westport. In fact, back in the early 90s, he opened Bombay Grill, which he since sold. “I like the in-town location, the demographics are great and people here – and in Fairfield County in general -- are well traveled and more cosmopolitan,” he said. “Thali Westport is a destination, not a walk-by… high-energy and with a great to-go business that accommodates the needs of people in the area who like to take home good food. I felt there was a gap between Fairfield and New Haven counties. I was determined to be here.”

Patrons are immediately soothed by the atmosphere of the Post Road location – brick, wood, paisley seatbacks, hues of deep red and burnt orange, dark stone tiles and a hip music soundtrack. Bent glass partitions, with Diwali fabric patterns and twinkling lights imitative of India’s Festival of Lights, create privacy and add warmth. A narrow street-side patio area dressed out with straw mats and trimmed with marigolds in flower boxes offers a sunny lunch perch or romantic sanctuary.

For the afterwork set just seeking thirst-quenching libations, Thali’s Mumbai Bar serves up exotic cocktails like its Tajmopolitan Martini, Bubbly Bangalore and Mumbai Collins, priced at $9 on average. The bar also provides aged ports, cognacs, bourbons/whiskies and single malt scotch, as well as domestic and imported beer like Indian brands Kingfisher and Taj Mahal.

For those wishing to relax and dine, the menu offers entrees that include Sea Bass seared in Hot Tandoor, Date & Walnut Chicken Breast with papaya-pineapple-tomato salsa and Goan Tiger Prawns in tempered garlic and slow-cooked tomatoes, priced at an average of $25. Thali also offers traditional Indian entrees like chicken, shrimp, fish, lamb and vegetables, all prepared with Indian herbs and spices, and Tandoor baked Nan bread complemented by seasoned onions, garlic and potato. Various side dishes include lentils, cucumber & tomato yogurt, cumin & coriander potatoes, and garlic spinach.

The highlight of the menu, however, is the arm’s length of small plate appetizers – no less than 30! – that are available. This is the core of the Thali concept: allowing diners to sample a host of different dishes and tastes that are filling and satisfying at a cost-effective value. In this “Indian food tapas-style” category, Chrinomula’s recommendations include Spicy Chicken Kababs, Multi Pepper-Crusted Breast of Duck, Pan-Seared Sole, Large Tandoori Shrimp, Samosa, and Little Buttons of Steamed Lentil and Rice Cakes. On average, these are priced around $8.

Of course, what meal would be complete without dessert? Thali exceeds expectations with a mouth-watering selection of unique offerings like Cardamom Crème Brulee, Caramel Mango Cheesecake and Indian specialties like Dudhi Jamun (fried milk balls in honey syrup) and Shahi Tukra (bread pudding). As complementary beverages, there’s a perky carousel of Lavazza coffee and Masala chai and organic teas, as well as excellent late harvest/dessert wines ranging from a Riesling “Ice Wine” to a Sauternes Chateau Guiraud.

“I have created hundreds of menus in the past. This is my favorite,” said Chirnomula. He also confesses though, “This is a hard kitchen as there is so much food to manage. One table of four that order eight appetizers times 10 tables could mean 80 appetizers to prepare in an hour’s time. We have a fairly sizable cooking and serving staff to accommodate this and our equipment is ample to handle demand as well.”

“Most of my competition is my own creation,” added Chirnomula, delving into his background and experience. “I’ve been involved with the marketing, development, consulting, management or ownership going back to the late 80s in Connecticut. I love marketing and have self-promoted myself for a long time… you can say I’m self-made.”

Born in Hyderabad, in southern India, Chirnomula had a comfortable start. Dad was a doctor, mom was a homemaker. His father wanted Prasad to follow in his footsteps and be a doctor, but Prasad’s dream was to be in the people and food business. “While my dad was looking for medical colleges for me, I was looking at culinary schools.” Prasad had seen his cousins reading big books and getting ready for medical practice and all the years they invested, and felt like half of one’s life is gone before one starts a medical career.

Chirnomula was inspired by his mother’s cooking – “It’s just amazing! The best food anywhere, anytime!” – and was determined to pursue his dream. He told his parents, “I’m going into the people/food business and far away from here!” He was 18 at the time. Still, they sent him to a medical entrance school, where he placated them, passing his time and having fun. But then it was on to the Food Craft Institute in Pune, about 300 miles from his home, where he participated in a four-year program, earning a chef and management degree.

Chirnomula went out for training during that span and had the opportunity to work at some of India’s finest hotels – onsite education, offsite practical training. He joined a privately owned Ritz Hotel as a management trainee and, at age 23, after just six months, was promoted to Food & Beverage Director. He had a “great young manager” and asked him what he should do with his life. The man suggested he go to America.

“I traveled to New York and my immediate goal was to join a hotel group or chain, at the 5-star level. I got a sponsorship through a restaurant and had big expectations – however, they started me as a busboy. Initially, this was a jolt, but I took the job, feeling that I had to start somewhere. Fortunately, I got very quick promotions and landed in the kitchen within a year.”

In 1988, Chirnomula got a call saying someone wants to open a restaurant, Meera, in Connecticut, from the ground up. “I never left the state since then,” he said. He was involved with the set-up for over a year then called to help with another Indian restaurant, Kismet in Georgetown, which he ultimately bought in 2004 and made a Thali.

In the years 1988-1999, Chirnomula opened eight restaurants – all primary locations from Westchester County to Massachusettes. Then he went on his own and opened his first Thali in 2000, in New Canaan.

“I’m a guy who believes in what he does, pays attention to quality and service and is motivated by a great staff and the greatest clientele.”

The Pipes Are Calling: First Church Congregational Debuts New Pipe Organ

The Pipes Are Calling:
First Church Congregational Debuts 
New Pipe Organ
(Appeared as a front page feature 
Fairfield Sun 10/21)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT –  “A… B… C…” Bernhard Althaus called down from the scaffolding to Michael Bessmann seated at the pipe organ keyboard below. As Bessmann pressed each key, Althaus moved methodically from pipe to pipe, listening intently, tapping and adjusting.

It was a mid-September weekday and Master Organ Builder Althaus and his assistant were busy tuning and testing the first 400 or so pipes of a new Tracker Pipe Organ that was being installed in the Sanctuary at First Church Congregational. The installation had begun in early July and this was a particularly critical stage – and one that had to meet the high standards of their boss, Philipp Klais, who had flown over from Germany this day and was due any moment to inspect their work. They were in the homestretch of a project that was ten years in the planning and readying the equipment for its November 14th public debut and concert.

The notes filled the high-ceilinged, Romanesque-style room with a pleasant sound while light filtered through the Tiffany stained glass windows around the perimeter. The smell of fresh sawdust hung in the air, the result of recent cutting and fitting of ramps, ladders and walkways up behind the organ to permit the workers access.

Sweat dripped from Althaus’ brow as he moved about the tin pipes, which were still wrapped in protective plastic. The bench of the organ was likewise wrapped in Styrofoam, to protect and keep clean the equipment. The two wore gloves so that no natural skin oils rubbed off on any surfaces. From Bonn, Germany, and residing in housing in Fairfield’s Beach Area, the pair remarked that their countrymen back home were drinking apple wine at this time of year. Althaus looked like he might enjoy taking a break to enjoy a nice libation like that. But the oval faceplate on the organ with the imprint “Johannes Klais, Bonn 2010” was a constant reminder that he had an important job to accomplish here and a narrowing window in which to complete his tasks.

Faced with the need to replace an aging electronic instrument and receiving funding from the estate of Lewis and Alice Burr, the church, an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ, began active planning for a new pipe organ in 2000. The church interviewed numerous builder candidates before deciding in 2008 to enter into a contract with Johannes Klais Orgelbrau of Bonn. Philipp Klais, 42, great grandson of the founder, now leads the 128-year-old company and 65 skilled workers building organs for churches and concert halls around the world and in all styles, from 17th century European chapels to 21st century contemporary buildings.

Charlotte Dyslin, who has led the church’s organ committee for ten years and been monitoring the installation work, has been very satisfied with the choice of builders. “Working with Phillip and his team has been a wonderful experience. Phillip truly understands the spiritual part that a pipe organ plays in worship and he and his team of craftsmen and craftswomen have been very creative in addressing the particular needs of our physical space,” she commented.

Althaus and Bessmann switched places from time to time and, on occasion, Bessmann would remove a pipe for Althaus to more closely inspect it. Periodically, Althaus would carry one to a makeshift workbench at the rear of the Sanctuary to make a small adjustment or even to hold up the pipe to his mouth and blow through it like some great alpine horn. “We are testing the sound,” he explained, a process known as “voicing.”

Returning to the organ, Bessmann played a particularly low and deep note and, smiling at Bessmann, cackled in a sinister way, like the Phantom of the Opera.

Accompanied by Dyslin and Peggy Gettig, co-chair of the organ committee, Klais, dressed in a black sport coat, jeans and black shoes, arrived on the scene and immediately began conferring with his workers. He had just two hours to give onsite before he had to return to the airport and fly to the Middle East to inspect another installation at a concert hall.

Perching on a bench, Gettig said, “I’m retired and have been fortunate enough to have been working with these guys all summer.” Gettig has been photographing and documenting the whole installation process via the church’s website and Blog, in a dedicated “Pipe Organ Installation” section.

About the initial development steps, Dyslin explained, “They built the base in Germany, then disassembled it and rebuilt it here. It had to be adjusted further as the installation space was not square.” Joked Gettig, “Like any old thing!”

Gettig noted that only 20% of the pipes had yet been installed. She referred to this as the “principal” or foundation of the organ. “If the principal sounds good – and Philipp is here to listen – then the rest will be good. In total, there are 2,103 pipes, of which 172 are wood. The rest are metal.”

The overall specs and logistics related to this fantastic organ are indeed dizzying. Thirteen thousand man hours of labor to create and install. The longest pipe measuring nearly 20 feet. Combined Tracker length of 5,200 feet. Combined wind duct length of 100 feet. Combined length of structural beams 1,800 feet. A total weight of 14 tons.

The organ itself has three manual keyboards, 36 stops and 41 ranks. It is a moderate, but full-sized organ designed to fill the Sanctuary with a sound that will both inspire and uplift. The room underwent an extensive restoration in 2009 and the style of wood and carvings on the organ’s face have been crafted to match the historic church décor. The organ features an “eclectic tonal style”, meaning that it will be able to lead the congregation in hymns and accompany the choir, while honoring the entire scope of the organ repertoire, spanning the 16th to 21st centuries.

“We anticipate this instrument will be here for 300 years,” said Dyslin. “The member children of the congregation will need to be its stewards.” To this regard, the church contracted Fairfield author/writer Peter Saverine to develop a children’s book, titled “A Little Mouse Music”, that will help them appreciate it and learn more about the history of the church. “It will help the adults, too,” joked Gettig, “who have a harder time with change!” The book, as well as a related CD, will be introduced on the organ’s Inaugural Day.

As Klais took his turn playing notes and scaling the rafters, Pastor David Spollett emerged from his office. “Herr Klais is here!” he noticed, and went to greet him. “It’s just fabulous!” he complimented.

Klais concluded his inspection and felt the work had progressed well. “I’m a pipe organ builder, so I’m always worried. I want an instrument that reaches not only ears, but hearts. It should be singing, not shouting… a member of the  congregation, not just an expensive toy of the organist. I’m glad we got the confidence of the church to build it… but I’m not sure I want to let it go! It’s become an important part of my life.”


Historic First Church Prepares for Pipe Organ’s Inaugural Day

In a recent meeting at First Church Congregational, Pastor David Spollett offered background about the church’s history and the significance of its new pipe organ. “This is the sixth meeting house on this spot, with the first built in 1639. The current building was established in 1891, the longest-lived of the series. It’s built of red sandstone from the Manchester area of Connecticut.”

The architect was Josiah Cleveland Cady, known for developing the south wing of the American Museum of Natural History, and the Dakota building, in New York City.

The church’s previous organ was electronic, installed in 1971, which replaced an older pipe organ. “It was like a computer,” pipe organ committee co-chair Peggy Gettig remarked. Added Spollett, “An electronic organ is just an amplified sound. The key to the pipe organ is air moving through pipes. You feel the sound, the richness, the warmth. It’s the difference between listening to a recording of a symphony orchestra and listening to the symphony orchestra live.”

Offered organ builder Philipp Klais, “Each pipe has its own soul… and, together, the pipes need to be a good choir, rather than soloists. If the organ is felt and loved by the congregation, it will help spur a feeling of community during church services. Pipe organs have been doing this for centuries.”

November 14th Inaugural Day Schedule (open to the public)
10:15 am -            Dedication of Pipe Organ during service
11:20 am -             Celebration Reception – Wakeman Hall
11:30 am -             Children’s Pipe Organ Concert & book reading/signing (fee)
4:00 pm -             Inaugural Concert
5:00 pm -             Formal Reception – Meet the Organ Builder, Philipp Klais, and Organist, Justin Bischof  

New Book Field of Screams Captures “Spirit” of Baseball

New Book Field of Screams Captures “Spirit” of Baseball
(Appeared on 10/21)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – The spirits in Yankee Stadium must have been at work again, helping to lift its pinstriped home team up from a 3-1 American League Championship Series deficit against the Texas Rangers. At least, that’s what author Dan Gordon would have you wondering in his new book Field of Screams, about which he presented an overview Wednesday evening at Fairfield Museum while the Yankees and Rangers duked it out in the Bronx.

The presentation was part of the museum’s “It’s A Hit!” baseball-themed programming and exhibits that run through January 2, 2011, and attracted baseball enthusiasts young and old.

The book, co-authored by Mickey Bradley, documents some of the amusing folklore that surrounds the game. In effect, it offers “the soul of the game and the stories that memorialize its legendary players and historic moments.” The authors permit true believers and skeptics to have their say, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. At the end of the day, this collection of supernatural stories adds color to the legacies of the great teams and the game itself.

Gordon, who “lives and dies with the Red Sox”, and Bradley, a lifelong Yankee fan, are unlikely partners. “There’s been a little bit of tension over time, but we both have a deep appreciation for history and enjoy the fun stories,” said Gordon.

Previously, the duo collaborated to write Haunted Baseball: Ghosts, Curses, Legends and Eerie Events. It was essentially the first volume of these spooky stories culled from ballplayers, stadium personnel, umpires, front office staff and fans, exploring the amusing and often eerie connection between baseball and the paranormal. When the authors set out to research that initial project, they wondered if they would find enough stories to fill a book. They were aware of some of the famous curses and talk of ballpark ghosts. Still, they were stunned by how many stories were making their way around which had not been captured in print, and knew a second book would have to follow.

The old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which had sat idle and overgrown for 10 years after ceasing operations, yielded a “rich cache of stories,” explained Gordon. This included the spectre of Ty Cobb running the bases, the roar of a ghostly crowd late at night and ghosts in the security office. The Comerica Park that replaced it had its own share of strange goings-on: metal detectors going off by themselves, a dark silhouette in a corner and a glass display case said to reflect Cobb’s image.

At Angels Stadium in Anaheim, CA, former players claim there’s an injury curse and have seen faces in the walls. At Boston’s Fenway Park, the image of a long-time announcer is often seen in the PA booth while a seagull that frequents the stadium is said to be the reincarnation of a former late owner.

If you ask Los Angeles Angels ballplayer Torii Hunter, he’ll tell you about hearing ghosts at Yankee Stadium “whispering in your ear the whole time you’re walking to the clubhouse, to the dugout, on the field.”

Literal truth or fanciful fiction? You decide the next time you take yourself out to the ballgame.

For more information about Field of Screams, visit Published by Lyons Press, 257 pages, $14.95.