Monday, March 4, 2013

Restaurant Preview: Chai Pani

The popularity of Cardamom Hill notwithstanding, most Indian food in Atlanta tends to be of the Northern Indian variety (think biryani, chicken tikka and samosas), so it's exciting to have a new Indian option of a different ilk. Husband and wife team Meherwan and Molly Irani have now brought their popular Asheville Indian street food spot, Chai Pani, to Decatur.

Before the restaurant opened last Friday, I had the chance to check out the redecorated spot and try some of their signature dishes. The dining room is now a far cry from the subdued days when it was Watershed. Now the walls are a riot of color with photography and street murals in keeping with the street food menu and laid back vibe.

Menu options range from “chaat” (small plates) and a line-up of “greatest hit” Indian street sandwiches, to “uttapam” (Indian crepes), “thalis” (traditional entrees), desserts, beverages and signature cocktails.

Station serving Sev Potato Dahi Puri

Sev Potato Dahi Puri are little flavor bombs made with puffed flour crisps (puris) stuffed with potatoes, onions, cilantro, crunchy chickpea noodles (sev) and topped with sweet yogurt, tamarind and green chutneys. I loved the contrast of creaminess and crunch and of savory and sweet. I've never heard of these before, but I would most definitely seek them out again!

My favorite dish of the night was the Sloppy Jai (Kheema Pav), a ridiculously tasty combination of spiced lamb hash simmered with tomatoes, ginger and aromatic spices, green chutney, sweet yogurt and toasted buns. It certainly evokes a traditional American sloppy joe, but it is infinitely more complex in its flavoring and delicious in its result. We may have gone back for seconds of these bad boys!

Another sandwich option, the Vada Pav, included a spicy potato dumpling fried in curried chickpea batter topped with green and tamarind chutneys. It was hearty and flavorful enough that it may even convince me to renounce my meat eating ways once in a while.

Station serving Bhel Puri and Corn Behl

Bhel Puri, another street food classic that I've never even heard of consisted of puffed rice, flour crisps (puris), crunchy chickpea noodles, potatoes, cilantro & onions tossed with tamarind and green chutneys, while Corn Bhel combined fresh roasted corn, cucumber, cilantro, tomato, onions and flour crisps tossed with cilantro-cumin-lime dressing. These light, vegetarian-friendly dishes, offered a fresh alternative to the richer food we were stuffing our faces with.

Matchstick okra fries are apparently one of Chai Pani's signature dishes. If you like okra, you'll probably love them. I for one am not a fan of that particular vegetable, so while I liked the dish far more than the more typical slimy preparations, they still weren't my fave.

Better was the Kale Pakora (batter dipped and fried kale). It was addictively crunchy and salty - a worthy competitor to the humble potato chip or french fry and probably a heck of a lot healthier.

Kale Pakora
There were Indian-inspired specialty cocktails on offer for the non-pregos in the bunch, but I stuck to the classic Mango Lassis. Damn, these were good! So creamy and sweet, and compelling enough to pull me back for seconds just a few minutes later.

Clearly, I was impressed by what I found at Chai Pani. The vast majority of the menu are dishes I've never had before which offers a fun change from the usual curries, and just about every single thing we tasted caused me to exclaim, "oh that is so good!" to the Mr. 

Little known fact - women who are 9 months pregnant, as I am, have stomachs that are compressed to bird sized. It is a testament to how good this food was that I tempted fate by continuing to eat to the point that I groaned from fullness for the rest of the night. Totally worth it!

Chai Pani 
406 W. Ponce de Leon Avenue in Decatur 
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 to 10 p.m. for dinner. 

*Full disclosure: Although my food was comped, I always endeavor to offer my unbiased opinion of the experience!

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