Cafe Society


On the floor at Chutney's, manager Subash Shetty moves silently from table to table, filling gaps in service left by his waiters and waitresses. He takes drink orders. He answers questions the servers can't — how to pronounce tikka-e-noorjahani and which is spicier, the Peshawari chicken or the chicken Chettinad. Only six tables are occupied: two-tops and fours, most of them already well into their dinners. At seven o'clock on a Saturday night, the place should be slamming. This is prime time in the kitchen world, and Chutney's is smack in the heart of Castle Pines, an area of fine homes and few fine-dining options. But outside, even the streets are quiet. If the bazillionaires whose McMansions are tucked into the folds of the surrounding hills have left their homes at all — come down from on high in search of company, fun or dinner — they're not coming here.

This is my first visit to Chutney's. I loved Kannan Alagappan's last restaurant: Denver Woodlands, an Indian restaurant he opened in a tough strip-mall space in the entirely un-bazillionaire suburb of Aurora a couple years back. Despite being vegetarian, Woodlands was a great restaurant — comfortable and casual, presenting a slightly different take on Indian food than the common curry-and-pakora board offered almost everywhere else. The kitchen worked with a broad palette of spices, and the menu focused on fresh preparations not often seen outside of certain hyper-regional dining rooms. This was not an American-Indian restaurant, but a purely Indian-Indian one, offering the thayir sadam and dosa and rice cakes that are considered comfort food by Indian families but are as foreign as space aliens to anyone else. Woodlands closed abruptly, sadly, but Alagappan then transplanted some of those nativist sensibilities to Castle Pines, where nine months ago he and chef/partner Ravi Chandra opened the much more luxurious Chutney's.

When the waitress comes to my table, I make a joke about how slow things are. She doesn't appear to find it very funny. She asks if I have any questions about the menu, and I do, so I ask them. She fakes the answers as best she can, talking only about the dishes with English names. Shetty has to come by the table before I can get a drink; he asks if there's anything else I need. I say no and sink back into my booth to wait, looking over the rough but polished wood accents, the gentle colors of the walls, the large bar in front with its tables giving way to a bottleneck hallway with the kitchen and bathrooms on one side, windows on the other, a raised patio in back with a view of the sunset and the mountains. The dining room itself is comfortable and bright, warm, designed with an eye toward the flow of large crowds, even if the large crowds aren't materializing.

The strangest thing about the space is its cultural anonymity. The music playing is banal soft jazz, the servers are dressed in a casual house livery of ordinary white over black. With just the rearrangement of a few decorations, a change in name, Chutney's could be any kind of restaurant — French or Spanish or Argentine or Continental. More than anything, it looks like the kind of restaurant you'd find in a well-appointed international hotel, with a borderless sense of being everywhere and nowhere at once. The only giveaway is the smell — that rich, soft, comforting odor of a hundred spices, of curry and a tandoor's earthy heat.

But even that smell does not begin to suggest the food that will follow. Although Denver is blessed with a profusion of very good Indian restaurants that showcase everything from the traditional Mughal cuisine of the north to the fierce spices of the south, from tandoori meats to Bengali seafood, the overwhelming majority of the Indian food available is family-style, really neighborhood Indian. It's the equivalent of having an entire Italian restaurant community dedicated to producing nothing but rustic trattoria dishes and allowing for no modern influence, no fine touches of opulence. Chutney's is the complete antithesis of this, an Indian restaurant that draws its inspiration not from the traditional neighborhood joints of India, but from the high-end kitchens of its hotels and resorts.

The whole notion of doing contemporary Indian cuisine, of presenting Indian food not as a peasant food, but as fine dining, is an unusual departure, one that puts an edge on even the most common and comforting dishes at Chutney's. The samosas, for example, are like a model of samosas, made with riced potatoes — not mashed — that are delicately spiced with cumin and fennel seed, studded with green peas, vaguely onion-scented rather than packed with limp bits of squishy onion, the fried-dough shells topped with a drizzle of mint chutney. The saag paneer that follows is so thick and rich with fresh spinach, cream and butter that it actually tastes like a soup reduced to its purest three-note expression. The honey gobi — florets of cauliflower glazed with garlic-shocked honey sauce — should be gross (come on, cauliflower and honey?) but is merely strange, pointed, unforgettable. And the pile of little orange shrimp mounted over sliced red onions, topped with a Madrasi salsa of tomatoes, cilantro and too many spices to count, is simply lovely.