Review: Man could live on bread alone at Chai & Chai
|Jordanian Chef Enas al Khalili presses balls of falafel by hand. See some of her work in Behind the Scenes at Chai & Chai|
If I had been a typical customer, I probably wouldn't have gone back. But I'm not a typical customer, so I did. At lunch, after braving far worse parking troubles -- I parked in the only space I could find, in a lot I wasn't authorized to use, half a mile away -- I took my place in line in front of the Indian chef. A separate line had formed by the Jordanian chef, and I noticed her chalkboard had bigger letters and a large arrow beneath the words "Order Here," a sign of competition that gave me another hint of the challenges Alla must be facing. But I was tempted to join the Jordanian line after I tried the two vegetarian Indian options that day: The garlicky dry chickpeas and spicy yellow lentils with mustard seeds combined for a lackluster meal, with not enough vegetables to balance out the legumes. The two meat options were more appealing: fiery, stir-fried chilli chicken and butter chicken, which is more of a thick, tomato-and-spice-packed curry than the name would imply. What I really wanted, though, were samosas and dosa, but they're only offered at night.
So I went back yet again, and discovered the same eerily quiet campus -- and the same inconsistency. Samosas were stuffed with a bland potato filling that made me wonder if the chef had gotten distracted and forgotten the spices, and there was no tamarind chutney in which to dunk them. The chicken tikka masala was much better, light on dairy so the ginger and garlic could shine.
And the dosa alone was worth the trip. A rolled, unstuffed creation so long it hung over both sides of the plate, the crackly crepe had a hint of tartness from the rice-and-lentil batter that had been left to ferment overnight. You only taste the sourness if you really concentrate, though. Once you rip off an airy section and dip it in the accompanying chutneys, you'll mostly taste heat, whether from the potatoes dotted with whole dried chiles, the smooth tomato chutney laced with more red chiles, or sambar with lentils, eggplant, onions and carrots.
Such inconsistency may explain why the restaurant has been slow to catch on at night. So in the upcoming months, Alla plans on making a major change: turning Chai & Chai into a homestyle ethnic restaurant. The word "homestyle" already appears in bold at the top of the dinner menu, and at first I took it to mean cooking as good as Grandma's, served on family-style platters. But this isn't what Alla has in mind. He's trying to re-create the immediacy and intimacy of his mother's kitchen, when "the daily vegetable vendor would come, and whatever [the vendor] had was what was for dinner." To help him achieve this, he's hired a new Indian chef who will be starting soon and should create a new lineup by early July. Some of the dishes will be staying, including the Jordanian "for now," but the balance will tip to vegetarian, and he might bring in a Spanish chef for Monday's "experimental day." In any case, most of the nightly offerings will be off-menu, he says; even customers who arrive at different times might receive different food, based on what the chef has available at that moment. "Your mom has no menu but the food is great, so why should I have a menu?" Alla asks.
Danielle Lirette Lamb mansaf at Chai & Chai.
I'm glad this was a rhetorical question. I can think of many reasons why à la carte menus are helpful, but here's the most important one: choice. Without a standard menu, I'm not sure I'd be willing to brave the parking challenges and risk a meal over which I have no control -- all kibbe and no dosa. Prix fixe-only and omakase dining require a certain degree of trust, and so far, Chai & Chai -- unlike Mom -- hasn't earned it.
Select menu items at Chai & Chai:
Lamb croquettes $7.95
Chickpea croquettes $7.95
Masala dosa $11.95
Non-veg lunch plate, large $8.95
Veg lunch plate, large $7.75
Chicken shawarma $15.95
Lamb mansaf $19.95
Chicken tikka masala $12.95
Chai & Chai is open from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5-8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Contact the restaurant at chaiandchai.com.