"Around sunset, the chaat carts go away, and the grills start to turn up. They're literally overnight pop-ups, these kebab stalls. The style and variety is simply mind-boggling, from fish fry to organ meats," Meherwan Irani, the self-taught, James Beard-nominated chef and owner of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, says.
Irani is describing a type of Indian street food mostly eaten after dark in big cities like Mumbai—which also happens to be the inspiration for the chef's upcoming restaurant, Botiwalla. The aroma of masala-rubbed meat cooking on the grill, mixed with plumes of smoke billowing into the night sky is almost palpable as Irani sets the scene.
Irani aims to capture the diverse sights, smells and tastes—the sensory overload of India—through both the street food and the atmosphere at his restaurants. And he's conscious of doing so in a way that will resonate with his diners. "With Chai Pani and especially with Botiwalla, I try to demystify Indian flavors," he says.
Botiwalla, which will open this April in Atlanta's Ponce City Market, is one of a new breed of restaurants that includes Babu Ji, Floyd Cardoz's upcoming Paowalla in New York City, Michael Mina's The Company pop-up in San Francisco and a slew of fast-casual spots like Inday and Soho Tiffin Junction, which are pushing Indian cuisine forward, moving it beyond lunchtime buffets and saag paneer into more nuanced territory—the likes of which could do what, say, David Chang has done for Korean food with the Momofuku empire or Danny Bowien's interpretation of Chinese with Mission Chinese. It's a shift in the way Indian food is both served and perceived.
As revered chef Cardoz, whose Paowalla opens in the spring, notes to Grub Street, "People have tasted things now; they've traveled; they understand that there's more to Indian food than chicken tikka masala and naan."
Associate professor of food studies at New York University Krishnendu Ray is excited to see how Cardoz's restaurant continues to push the envelope. Ray describes the chef's food as bringing "clarity and freshness to his flavors that [he] miss[es] in curry house cookery."
He observes the broadening horizon of Indian food across the country as "a kind of upscaling," which he primarily attributes to a "shift in style and price point," seeing it most in appetizers and the focus on street food.
Botiwalla, for one, will serve the grilled food that takes over the streets of India at nightfall. You can expect everything from grilled vegetables and paneer to masala-marinated grilled steak (see the recipe for Indian steak tacos). Babu Ji, the surprise hit of New York's dining scene last year, serves excellent gol gappa, or pani puri, which is a street food you don't often see in western Indian restaurants. It's one of the best dishes on the menu.
Such street food is a broad category and "an aspect of [the cuisine] that is so beloved in India," Babu Ji co-owner Jennifer Singh says. Her restaurant has made waves not just for the dishes it serves, but also for its atmospheric experience, one that is markedly different from traditional western Indian restaurants. With a self-serve beer fridge and Bollywood movies projected onto the wall, Babu Ji's ambiance speaks just as loud as the food itself.
Ray calls Babu Ji "smart" with a "hipsterish air" that is "playing with the Indian vernacular and giving it a cosmopolitan finish." Jessi Singh, the chef and co-owner of the restaurant, "focuses on a lot of detail, texture, color and presentation, which are often things that get lost in Indian cooking," Jennifer says of her husband. Together, the couple is focused on creating "a total experience" at Babu Ji.
Thanks to this focus on the "total experience" and the move away from entrée-focused, heavy "curry house" cuisine toward new dishes like Botiwalla's street food kebabs, Indian cuisine is finally joining the ranks of a genre Irani and Michael Files, brand director for the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, describe as "ethnic food 2.0."
"We can be authentic without being traditional," Irani says, as he describes his food. Indeed, in this new era of Indian food, naan tacos and Bombay chilli cheese fries have just as much of a place as traditional chapati. As Irani says, this is just the beginning of America's "new conversation with Indian food." We're all ears.