“When we started out, it was our second restaurant (after Asheville, North Carolina), and we were kind of broke, so we sort of used bubble gum and chicken wire to put it together, and it was starting to show its age,” Irani said in a phone call last week. “And then with refreshing the space, it was time to ask, ‘What kind of experience do we want to deliver?’
“I really felt like the restaurant had become a victim of its own success. We were stuck doing the same menu we started with back at the first Chai Pani in Asheville in 2009. My intention was not to have a static menu of the greatest hits of Indian street food. But we kind of got stuck. And the busier it got, the harder it was to realize our original vision. As it turned out, though, the pandemic was the great equalizer for everybody.”
With that perspective, Irani and culinary director Daniel Peach put together an entirely new menu that debuted a few weeks ago. It’s focused on food from India’s Deccan Plateau — the region Irani’s Parsi family migrated to, and also where he grew up, and returns to for inspiration.
“I wanted a cohesive theme for the menu, something that could tell a story,” Irani said. “This is Meherwan traveling, exploring, and learning the foodways of the country that he grew up in. But given that it’s 1.3 billion people, and really ancient, there’s a lot more to learn.”
The new menu includes quintessential dishes from Maharashtra, such as Misal Pav, with sprouted mung bean curry, crunchy snack mix, onions, and cilantro, served with lime, pav and rassa. Kolhapuri Mutton is slow-cooked, bone-in goat in a silky gravy of roasted coconut, red chiles, onion, and curry leaves.
Green Tomato Pakora, savory, crunchy green tomato fritters made with curried chickpea batter, served with mint chutney and sweet yogurt, and Surti Locho, steamed yellow lentil “grits” topped with butter, chatpata masala, served with green chutney, lime, and red onion, are among the other new items.
Along with Peach, who has lived in Pune, and traveled extensively in India (to the point that Irani calls him his “culinary right-hand man”), chef de cuisine Sahar Siddiqi also has had a hand in tweaking the new menu.
“She’s running the kitchen, and has been charged with maintaining the fun, casual nature of Chai Pani,” Irani said, “but also charged with helping to tell a little bit more of a story with style and plating.”
Last week, Peach and Siddiqi sat down at a table at Chai Pani to give their perspectives on the changes.
“We’ve always wanted to showcase more of the diversity of cuisine in India, and the regional dishes,” Peach said. “We had a new menu at the beginning of 2020 that was sort of the precursor to this. We opened for six services, I think, and then we shut down, we went to this to-go model, and we sort of hibernated.
“But I would say that this is the beginning. Sahar and I have really big plans for what we want to do. And this was our way of reestablishing ourselves, in terms of the food that we serve, and in terms of what our food is worth.”
“We’re sourcing local ingredients as much as we can, and sourcing higher-quality ingredients as much as we can, and it elevates our food in a different way,” Siddiqi said. “It’s great, because I get to be very creative, and I kind of have the dream job right now, playing with food, and working on this new menu. We kept saying, when we were reopening, this is a new restaurant, and it feels like it, definitely.”
5-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays and Wednesdays-Thursdays (closed Tuesdays); 5-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-378-4030, chaipanidecatur.com.
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