- Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani in Asheville, NC, and Chintan Pandya and Ronnie Mazumdar’s NYC-based Dhamaka are chosen for reflecting “the rich mosaic of American dining.”
In 2009, Meherwan Irani quit his day job in sales to open his first restaurant in Asheville, N.C. He named the authentic Indian street food joint Chai Pani. Since then, the self-taught chef has opened several other restaurants, including Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia; Botiwalla in Atlanta. Buxton Chicken Palace, Buxton Hall Barbecue and Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken, all in Asheville, and Spicewalla spice company. He has received four James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast.
This year, Irani’s first establishment, Chai Pani in Asheville, is among The New York Times’ top 50 restaurants of 2021, that “reflect the rich mosaic of American dining.” In its writeup, The New York Times recommends some of the most popular dishes at Chai Pani — chaat, kale pakoras and the crispy hyper seasoned okra fries.
Irani told exploreasheviile.com that he gave a street-like vibe to Chai Pani because he felt that “if people connected with the story of the food and where it came from, that would make the food much more approachable.” Irani, who grew up in Mumbai, moved to the U.S. to get an MBA. He was also part of the ‘Brown in the South’ a collaborative dinner series put together by seven Southern chefs of Indian and Sri Lankan descent, celebrating the commonality between Indian and southern cuisine.
The first of the series took place at Irani’s Decatur location of Chai Pani, “where the chefs welcomed a sold-out crowd with Indian snacks and cocktails,” according to Food and Wine magazine. “Guests sat at long tables and dug into a reimagined Southern meat-and-three dinner of meatloaf topped with tart pickled apple achar, peppery Kerala-style fried chicken, and masala-spiced shrimp with upma, an Indian semolina dish that stood in for grits.”
Irani told the magazine that he’s lived longer in the U.S. than in India. “At some point, I have to stop being an Indian who lives in the South and be someone who is from both places. So we decided to get our friends together and talk about it and cook. And then, of course, being chefs, invite 150 people for dinner.”
Joining Chai Pani is New York City’s Dhamaka, a collaboration of chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar. The duo describes their venture as a new “Unapologetic Indian” restaurant serving provincial Indian cuisine to the new Essex Market.
In an earlier review of the restaurant, the Times says that both Pandya and Mazumdar have “tried to give us a fresh view of Indian cuisine by making it more citified.” It says Pandya takes his “cues from the unabashedly forceful cooking of the villages. And, “instead of modernist plates assembled with surgical precision, he gives us clay pots filled with goat kidneys and testicles, whole semolina-crusted fried pomfret that you eat with your fingers and a chicken pulao steamed inside a pressure cooker.”
Mazumdar told Eater New York that the restaurant is “our way of showing New Yorkers parts of India they might not have seen. I’ve been in this industry for a very long time, and you get boxed in in many different ways. With Dhamaka we’re looking at ways we can unshackle ourselves.”
The menu extends to dishes from all over the country. He told Eater New York that he spent several months traveling throughout India, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, “to explore regional foods that were popular locally but that had not made their way onto restaurant menus.”
The Mumbai- born Panda studied hotel management at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management in Delhi. He got his professional start at a hotel restaurant in Mumbai, spending eight years in the kitchen learning traditional Indian cuisine and techniques. After a brief stint in Singapore in 2009, he traveled to Cleveland and Atlanta for consulting gigs. He moved to New York and worked as the executive chef of Michelin-starred Junoon.
In 2017, along with Mazumdar, Pandya opened Rahi in the West Village, a casual and relaxed Indian bistro. A year later, they opened a second restaurant, Adda, in Long Island City. The restaurant earned two stars in The New York Times from Pete Wells and landed on Eater’s 2019 “Best New Restaurants in America” list.