People tell me that Chai Pani — the vibrantly painted Decatur restaurant that serves a bespoke riff on Bombay street food — makes some mean cocktails. Tamarind-spiked mojitos, chili-charged margaritas and all kinds of other boozy refreshment.
I can’t tell you firsthand because I’ve never once felt the temptation to order a drink stronger than beer. I don’t know what it feels like to want a cocktail with Indian food. I do enjoy the restaurant’s nimbu pani, however, which is a kind of fresh lime soda sharpened with a sprinkle of salt. It tastes like nature’s own Gatorade and goes down brilliantly.
People also love Chai Pani’s signature appetizers — matchstick fried okra tossed with seasonings and kale pakoras fried in a thick gram (chickpea flour) batter. They are both novel for a bite but end up tasting greasy and one-dimensional, just sort of fried and brown. Remember when chefs used to garnish everything with fried leek matchsticks? They taste like that.
These two dishes, the “must orders,” kept me from appreciating Chai Pani for months. Now I know. Forget the fried businesses. Get the thali!
Each day there’s a choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian, which here offer the variety and delight of a great bento box. You might go for the day’s veg offering and get saag paneer (the menus are posted each day on Twitter: @chaipanidecatur). It’s darker, spicier and more rustic than other versions you may have had, with nicely chewy bits of spinach. (I suspect it’s frozen, and if so, I want the recipe.)
But the sides make things scrumptious. Chickpea sabji, a thin dal freckled with cuminy nigella seed, a crunchy red cabbage salad, raita, rice fresh roti bread, a gorgeously brittle pappadum and a scoop of carrot halwa for dessert.
Chicken malabar in a gingery coconut curry has a nice chili tingle and a lot of tender breast meat chunks. I’m more of a bony dark meat guy, but I still liked it a lot. The sides are all the same.
If you do want to try one of the street-food snacks, I’d recommend the sev potato dahl puri. The menu encourages you to call it “SPDP,” which makes me think of a police patrol. Small puri puffs come filled with fried gram noodles, potatoes, onions, chutneys and yogurt. Open wide and…pop!
Maybe a cocktail wouldn’t taste so bad right about now.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog