Review: Man could live on bread alone at Chai & Chai

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Chai & Chai 12501 East 17th Avenue, Aurora 720-588-0343

Last fall an unassuming little place named Chai & Chai opened in an unlikely stretch of fast-food restaurants at the heart of the Anschutz Medical Campus. I'd heard it had good dosa -- good enough to nab the Best Dosa award in the Best of Denver 2014 -- so one night I headed east, past City Park, past Stapleton, past the Latino businesses that spring up along Montview Boulevard, until I turned onto the campus, where brick behemoths that are beehives of activity during the day grow eerily deserted at night. I thought it would be easy to find parking at that hour, but the adjacent garage was for staff only, and the gravel lot down the street required a permit. Finally, I decided to risk a ticket and headed for the lot, assuming that parking would be my greatest adventure of the night. I was wrong.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Chai & Chai

Inside the restaurant, a voice that could have belonged to Siri's sister was chirping from a computer at the empty hostess stand, waiting for someone to confirm a takeout order. After a few attempts, the voice grew impatient -- or maybe that was us, since we were still waiting to be seated. "You seem to be having lots of trouble with this question," it said loudly, and suddenly the situation seemed so much like a scene out of a hidden-camera show that we started laughing, as did the two other guests in the dining room. Still, no one appeared: no camera crew, no servers, no hostess, no cooks behind the plastic divider that reveals Chai & Chai's setup as a grab-and-go at lunch.

Finally a server/hostess arrived full of apologies, but when we tried to place our order of dosa, chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo, we learned that the Indian chef had gotten tired and gone home: There would be no Indian food.

Now, I've been in blizzards and gotten food. I've been in tiny villages late at night where no one speaks English and gotten food. I've landed late on Christmas Eve and still found a place with the lights on. "No food at all?" my husband asked. "No Indian food," the server clarified. "Our Arabian menu is still available, though."

That was my first inkling of the challenges facing owner Venu Alla, an Indian architect and tech consultant who got into the restaurant business with Chai & Chai, a dual-concept restaurant serving both Indian and Arabian food. Rather than offering fusion, the two kitchens operate separately under one roof. On the Indian side is Rajesh Kannan, a dosa chef who honed his skills at Masalaa and turned out that terrific dosa. On the Arabian side is Enas Khalili, a Jordanian who is said to have cooked for the Royal Jordanian Army. (Until last month, the owners of a Thai restaurant, Sue of Siam, were also using the space to put out Thai food for lunch on Mondays.) And if that sounds like a complicated endeavor, it is. "There's no synergy," laments Alla. "Except salt, there's nothing they share." Not spices, not ingredients, and apparently not recipes, since Khalili was unable to cross borders and pitch in.

If we hadn't worked so hard to find parking, we might have left at that point, so eagerly had we anticipated the dosa. Instead, we ordered from the Arabian menu, which includes a mix of standard Middle Eastern fare and Jordanian specialties. Some were tasty: The baba ghanoush had a deep smokiness unmuddied by too much tahini; crisp falafel broke apart to reveal a green, pleasantly grainy interior; and chicken shawarma featured morsels of tender, marinated white meat, crispy minced cabbage, and tahini over a mound of rice. But other dishes, sampled on this and subsequent visits, weren't worth the hassle, such as hummus that tasted not of garlic or tahini, but fizzy lemon; soggy baklava; and deep-fried kibbe stuffed with cold lamb. Keep reading for more on Chai & Chai. The Jordanian specialties were also disappointing. In fact, the tastiest parts were the glowing stories with which the chef regaled our table: how it's traditional to eat the almond-flecked rice with your fingers, preferably as you feed each other; how she uses a hammer to chip yogurt off bricks made by Bedouins, yogurt that becomes the base of the thin, sour sauce poured over lamb-shank mansaf. But both the mansaf and the kusa-bil-laben, aka meat-stuffed squash over rice, tasted sour and bland, as if salt, pepper and yogurt were the only flavoring agents. It was enough for my husband just to try them, much less feed me with his fingers, something we hadn't done since our wedding day.

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.

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: Samosas $5.95 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 Kusa-bil-laben $17.95 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.

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