Asheville's Chai Pani launches new look, expands menu

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times

ASHEVILLE — Chai Pani introduced a different take on Indian street food to Asheville when it opened more than 8 years ago on a shoestring budget.

Since then, the concept has evolved, with owners Molly and Meherwan Irani taking the street-food show to Decatur, Georgia. They've also opened an offshoot called Botiwalla in Atlanta's Ponce City Market food hall. 

Chai Pani chef Meherwan Irani carries a Mumbai Club sandwich, a dish new to the menu, through the newly renovated restaurant on Tuesday, March 6, 2018.

Now the bustling Asheville shop where it all began has gotten a refresh. Recently wrapped renovations have added more elbow room, a full bar, a fresh coat of paint and some new mural work by artist Luna Nunez to the bigger, brighter dining room. 

It's about time, after all. Chai Pani Decatur store, opened in 2013, has the marks of a more-mature, tried-and-true concept, as do the other Chai Pani Restaurant Group projects, including Buxton Hall.

A Mumbai Club sandwich is new to the menu at Chai Pani made with tomato, cucumber, potatoes, chutneys, and cheese on toasted bread and served with Maggi ketchup.

Now, there are key staff members to execute a new look, like brand and creative director Michael Files. Now, there is capital. 

Read more: 4 Asheville-area chefs are James Beard Award semifinalists

"We decided that the mothership needed some love," Files said. 

"The original was the best we could do," added Meherwan Irani. "Given the time frame we had, and given the fact that we were all broke, the fact that it was a recession, the fact that we had no idea if anybody in Asheville would ever come to eat Indian street food, because up to that point it was somewhat unheard of."

Customers enjoy lunch at the newly renovated Chai Pani downtown on Tuesday, March 6, 2018.

"It felt like a wild experiment at the time," Molly Irani said. 

There was also a practical reason to renovate: the flagship restaurant's business level was wearing on an aging kitchen, she added. "It got to the point where it couldn't function at the level the business needed it to function. We were trying to take things off the menu to be able to keep the quality we wanted, at the volume we needed."

Now the kitchen has been reconfigured to handle volume the Iranis could have never predicted when they first built Chai Pani. Now, employees can navigate the space with heavy trays without being jostled. Now, not for nothing, the bathrooms are in a less-weird place.

There's also a stairway to the downstairs bar, MG Road. Even better, Chai Pani now has its own full bar, with cocktails including The Pani, a bracing sparkling wine concoction, bright with lime juice and cilantro and balanced with elderflower.

The new kitchen configuration has opened the door for new menu items, like the Pav Bhaji, or spicy mashed root vegetables, redolent with butter and served with buttery toasted buns.

The Desi Salad, shown here topped with Chicken Tikka, is new to the menu at Chai Pani after their February renovation. It features shredded white and red cabbage, carrots, scallions and roasted cashews, all topped with toasted sesame seeds, cilantro and a cumin-line vinaigrette.

There's also the Desi, a shredded cabbage salad with roasted cashews, crisp sev noodles, dressed with a cumin-lime vinaigrette. 

A new menu item, the Mumbai Club, layers toasted bread with spiced potatoes, cucumber, tomato, onion, cheese, chutney and spicy-sweet Maggi ketchup. 

It seems at first blush like an Americanized Indian mashup, but it's India's take on a British import, made famous on the streets of Mumbai. It's the kind of slightly odd Indian street food Meherwan Irani hopes to keep introducing to his apparently ever-evolving restaurant. 

"This is just the beginning," he said. "I want to continue to bring in more and more stuff that's weird, just a little out there, but definitely amazing."

Chai Pani is open daily at 22 Battery Park Ave. More here