It’s no secret that Chai Pani is one of Asheville’s greatest ethnic culinary gems. Executive Chef Meherwan Irani has been nominated three times for Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation, and his brainchild Chai Pani has been praised by media all over the country (think The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, etc). Open since 2009, it’s a truly innovative restaurant, changing the way we think about and eat Indian food.
The restaurant’s name, Chai Pani, translates to “tea and water.” In India, it's slang for going out for a cup of tea and a delicious bite to eat. In Asheville, chef Irani’s mission is to simulate the smells, sights, colors, and energy of the streets of India through nourishing food and drinks. It’s innovative, fun, and exciting Indian cuisine.
The fun begins with the space. Full of bright artwork, murals, lights, and flowers, you can immediately feel that you’re in a special place. Every color and pattern is intentional, and makes the dining room feel eclectic and evocative of the hand-painted truck art in India.
Street food shows the true flavors of any country—dumplings in China, tacos in Mexico, bratwurst in Germany...And Irani seeks to do the same—tell the stories of Indian cuisine through the lens of traditional street food and highlight its diversity. The menu is broken up by chaat (flavor-packed street snacks), Indian sandwiches, uttapam (savory crepes), and thalis (traditional family meals).
I went with two friends on a Monday night, and it was busy enough to hint that it’s definitely worth the hype. After a long day of hiking and exploring, we were hungry. Reading the menu was enough to make my mouth water, especially with enticing descriptions like: “savory puffed flour crisps (puris) stuffed with potatoes, onions, cilantro, and crunchy chickpea noodles (sev), with sweet yogurt, and tamarind & green chutneys. Finger lickin’ good.”
We decided on two of the signature dishes, matchstick okra fries and butter chicken.
After a few minutes, out came the piping hot plate of piled high okra fries—julienned and simply tossed with lime juice, salt, and an addictive seasoning blend. Sometimes I think food writers throw the term “addicting” around haphazardly, but in this case, I honestly mean it. It became a subconscious rhythm—in between conversations, my right hand danced towards the platter, selecting a perfectly crispy okra, and swiftly carrying it to my lips where it became entrapped, and fingers were subsequently licked.
During a moment of pure okra-eating bliss, the butter chicken arrived on a platter large enough to serve three. The signature meal came with a generous portion of basmati rice, raita (yogurt sauce), hand-made roti (round flatbread), kachumber (cabbage salad), and naan bread. The chicken was melt-in-your-mouth heavenly, and the sauce was velvety, tomato-y, and struck the perfect balance of savory with a hint of sweetness. The raita offered a fresh, cool oasis for both the chicken okra, and was reminiscent of a cucumber tzatziki sauce, but with more pizzazz (thanks coriander and cumin).
All in all, they nailed it. And Chai Pani is more than just a restaurant, it’s a creative brand that’s leveraging its storytelling talent to transport us into their childhoods and ancestries, and give back to the community. In 2016, Irani took his team on ten-city, ten-day adventure through India to learn (and eat) as much as they could about its culinary traditions, and they released a documentary, Cutting Chai, that follows their quest. The restaurant has also made a generous pledge to financially support two female students in India by offering full university scholarships that cover room and board, transportation costs, university fees, and tutoring.
Bravo, Chai Pani—we’ll be back soon.