Chai Pani in Decatur has been serving Indian street food since 2013. It counted okra fries and kale pakora among its most beloved dishes, but as the restaurant reopens its dining room for the first time since the start of the pandemic, those dishes will be gone, and an entirely new menu will take its place. Only the butter chicken and saag paneer will stay. But before you burst into tears, here’s what owner Meherwan Irani has to say about the changes—and why he promises it’ll be worth it.
“The pandemic gave us an opening to wipe the slate clean,” says Irani. He and his team had long discussed changing the menu to highlight different parts of India and felt now was the perfect opportunity.
On the menu will be dishes from the state of Gujarat, which Irani and his colleagues visited in February 2020. “My people, Parsis, left Persia, landed in Gujarat, and eventually migrated down to Maharashtra where I grew up,” says Irani. Irani traveled down the Deccan Plateau and stopped in towns like Surat and Ahmedabad.
The new dishes draw inspiration from that trip. Expect to see locho, from Surat, a term Irani says means to “eff something up.” Made with lentils, the dish has a grit-like consistency and will be served at Chai Pani with fresh green chutney, butter, onions, cilantro and crispy sev (chickpea noodles). Another dish that Irani is particularly excited about is thalipeeth from further south in Maharashtra—a crispy multigrain pancake stuffed with bottle gourd. “You’ll never find it in a restaurant. It’s usually made at home or maybe in a mom-and-pop cantina-style shack somewhere,” says Irani. “It’s so fricking delicious, people just lose their minds when they try it for the first time.”
In fact, most of the dishes on the new menu are what Irani considers to be rustic. Many of them are traditionally served at home rather than restaurants because they require patience and are ultimately deemed too homely. “It’s an exploration of the more humble side of Indian street food and Indian at-home cooking,” he says. “So really getting away from the more popularized dishes of India.” He adds these types of dishes also happen to be the most delicious food he’s tasted.
There will be new desserts, too. In India, desserts are not traditionally eaten at the end of the meal but are reserved as sweet gifts for loved ones. So Irani and the chefs wanted to marry Indian and American traditions and came up with treats like falooda, a Persian drink that migrated to India with the Parsi people. It’s a rich concoction of rose syrup, heavy cream, ice cream, bloomed basil seeds, and saffron.
After seven years, it was time for a change for Chai Pani. “We became a victim of our own success,” Irani says. “When I first opened, the things that we put on the menu back then were really new, different, and exciting. And people hadn’t seen that in Indian restaurants, at least not the way we were doing it.”
And now that they’ve had the opportunity to reset, Irani is excited that he and his chefs, Culinary Director Daniel Peach and Chef de Cuisine Sahar Siddiqi, can hopefully make people as familiar with locho as they are samosas or kale pakoras.
“All of these dishes will become favorites. And just because they’re homestyle or sort of more humble food, I don’t think it makes them any less exciting or any less delicious,” Irani says. “In fact, I think it makes them more exciting and more delicious than anything we’ve done up to so far.” 406 West Ponce de Leon Avenue, 404-378-4030, open for dinner Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesday)