First Look: Chai Pani (1)

Authentic Indian street food blossoms in the heart of Decatur

Chai Pani, the new upscale-ish Indian street food spot in Decatur, is an oxymoron of restaurant wizardry. It has a menu heavy on authentic Indian chaat (that's the street food), yet it also has a gentrified, Southern-fried vibe that's nothing like typical Indian restaurants. Can spice-packing authenticity and a farm-to-fork, feel-good atmosphere really coexist? If the crowds packing into Chai Pani are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

Like Taqueria del Sol just across Ponce de Leon Avenue, Chai Pani wraps the elements of ethnic street food in a contemporary Southern embrace. The space has a similarly sleek, minimalist feel, accented with colorful photos of Indian street life and old Bollywood posters on the wall. Chai Pani also takes a similar order-at-the-counter approach at lunchtime (though switches to table service at dinner), with prices that stay affordable despite a premium over hole-in-the-wall chaat shops.

Owner Meherwan Irani describes the idea behind Chai Pani as "hyperauthentic, showcasing a diversity of Indian food, but in a casual and unintimidating environment." The new Decatur restaurant, which seems right at home in the airy space that used to be Watershed, is actually a sister of the original Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C. Irani and his wife, Molly, were looking for the right community to expand into, and found that the two towns shared similar sensibilities, despite the difference in altitude.

Since opening March 1, the dining room has been packed, the staff superbly welcoming and polished for such a young endeavor, and the kitchen visibly crazed with activity. There are a lot of eager cooks in the kitchen, making almost everything from scratch (the hot mango pickle on each table and the Indian pav buns for sandwiches are the only exceptions). Across the board, Chai Pani's kitchen applies a deft touch with spices, though, on occasion, dishes can be overshadowed by liberal drizzles of minty green cilantro or sweet tamarind chutneys.

A dozen or so mostly traditional chaat dishes — small, flavorful plates, mostly vegetable-based, often accented with those chutneys — form the core of the menu and range from $4-$9 each. The sev potato dahi puri is an enchanting explosion of color and flavor, a plate of puffed flour crisps filled with a messy mix of chickpea noodles, potatoes, cilantro, and sweet yogurt. An order of kale pakoras comes in the form of big chunks of kale fried to a crisp in a curried chickpea batter. It makes for an addictive, salty snack — a revelation of old-school Indian technique applied to an inescapably au courant ingredient.

Irani points out that Chai Pani's selection of sandwiches and wraps may seem Americanized, but actually stays quite close to common Indian street foods. The vada pav ($9) is a thick, patty-shaped, fried potato dumpling — a bit like the inside of a samosa without the pastry shell — plopped inside a slider-size bun. The meaty sloppy Jai ($10) fills the same buns with a chili-like lamb hash. They may not call it a sloppy Jai in India (where it's called kheema pav), but apparently these types of sandwiches can be found all over Mumbai.

A few thali specials each day include both vegetarian and non-veg options, like sweet potatoes with spinach or red curry chicken, served up with sides of rice and daal and papadum. Two well-executed, though fairly standard, versions of uttapam also appear ($10-$11) — thick crepes made from rice and lentil batter, served with a side of sambar (vegetable stew) to be spooned over the crepe. Chai Pani adds a few spiced-up salads ($10-$11) to round out the menu, and the quesadilla-like cheese paratha ($3) or smooth mango lassi are great for kids.

While I'm not so interested in ordering a malbec or chardonnay from the brief wine list to go with my chaat, there's a tempting selection of craft beers, including several from Asheville's Highland Brewing. Cocktails are full of Indian twists like sticky-sweet and spicy tamarind in a Mojito, or Kashmiri chili powder blended into a frothy whiskey sour.

Chai Pani embraces its regional contradictions wonderfully. I can't help but feel intoxicated by the spices shaken into the cocktails, or the presence of lamb hash in a slider, or the fact that kale works so well as a fried, salty snack. The whole experience is a unique escape from the norm. So here's to the blossoming of authentic Indian street food, in the hip, hip heart of Decatur.

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