Red Lentil fills a much needed niche in New Haven for a respectable, friendly, creative vegetarian restaurant. This place easily takes the crown for the best vegetarian food in the city, handily beating Thali Too and uber-bland Claire's. Moreover, Red Lentil offers unusually smart and sophisticated dishes that you won't find anywhere else; this is a true rarity and cannot be overlooked. All that said, there are a number of duds on the menu, all listed below.
The gobi manchurian appetizer ($8) is the best appetizer on the menu. Basically it's crispy, fried cauliflower covered in a spicy and savory sauce with green onions. A standard of "Indo-Chinese" cuisine, I'm glad that Red Lentil chooses to offer it, because they do it well here. The sesame seitan appetizer ($8) is tasty, but far too expensive considering the small portion size. Avoid the samosas and vegetable dumplings, which were passable, at best. Lastly, I'd also avoid the soy chicken strips with bbq sauce ($6.50); this dish just felt dry and chalky in flavor.
On the dinner menu, I'd first and foremost recommend the pistachio-encrusted tofu ($14.50) which is a beautifully presented dish consisting of tofu slices and a wonderful pistachio coating. How often do you see pistachios on restaurant menus? Not often. And this dish works like a charm.
The near east seitan with teff ($14.50) is also a brilliant pairing which I'd never seen before and the fenugreek sauce mixes nicely with both the seitan and the unusual teff.
The shepherd's pie ($16) is also solid and a nice recreation of a traditionally meaty meal.
Avoid the butternut squash polenta, and pizzas and burritos. These dishes come across and pedestrian and bland. It's almost as if Red Lentil stumbles on simple dishes, and executes only on sophisticated and daring plates, such as the seitan with teff and the pistachio tofu.
For brunch, the tofu scramble is excellent, as are the waffles. Be warned that the waffles are really rich and dessert-esque and will fill you up quickly.
For lunch, the veggie burger is unimpressive with a crumbly texture and awful white flour bun. The red lentil soup is respectable, though, and more reminiscent of an Indian dal than anything else.
Avoid the desserts, as well. The first time around I got a slice of chocolate blueberry cake, which sounded interesting as a flavor combination, but in reality was executed poorly. The cake was crumbly and horribly dry. It was inedible, to be frank.
This is a great place to take a date or a mixed group, which is also a nice feature. The service is always friendly, though you should expect a wait at peak times (Friday and Saturday nights and holidays). I think the restaurant needs a better staffing plan for certain times of the week.
On a whole, Red Lentil is a winner. Just remember this rule of thumb: if it's an unusual dish or has ingredients you've never seen paired before, get it. If it's a more traditional offering, avoid it.