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India Chaat House offers vegan-friendly variety

India Chaat House offers vegan-friendly variety

If you were opening a new vegetarian Indian restaurant in Indy, just where would you put it? How about right next to the only other vegetarian Indian restaurant in town? While it seems a counterintuitive entrepreneurial undertaking, India Chaat House has recently squeezed itself into a space between Udupi Café and India Palace on Lafayette Road, upping the number of Indian restaurants in that complex to three. With just around a dozen Indian restaurants in the entire city, it’s a pretty high concentration. In a sense, though, it’s no stranger than putting a Burger King next to a McDonald’s. Minus the beef.
But India Chaat House brings a personality with it that’s strikingly different from its neighbors. Those familiar with the kinds of Indian food long served at area restaurants — tandoori, curries and nan — will be surprised to know they’ve hardly mined the diverse gustatory treasures of this nation of a billion people. The Indian word “chaat” is variously translated as anything from salads to sweets but loosely implies the variety of snack foods one can get from street vendors all over the country and which are particularly popular in the owner’s native Bombay. But banish your visions of Chicago dogs and pretzels dangling behind glass. This isn’t food you’ll want to wolf down on the go.

A diverse peg-board menu at the counter offers a good selection of snacks, Bombay specials and southern Indian dishes, most around $3.99. A fresh, ever-changing buffet, however, seems the best way to encounter this curious sub-cuisine. The evening weekend buffet, for instance, boasts 36 chaat specialties, as well as a host of “Indo-Chinese” offerings, mainly Chinese-Indian fusion dishes — essentially Chinese food with a lighter touch and flavors slightly to the Indian side.

For first-timers, chef and owner Manish Khanna is more than happy to walk diners through the day’s buffet. In true cafeteria style, buffet-goers belly up with partitioned aluminum trays that conjure memories of the lunch lady in her hairnet doling out fish sticks. This makes for some confusion in complying with health department requirements that call for a new plate with each trip. But the trays are great for keeping the different dishes from canceling each other out. Spicing is definitely not timid here — though Khanna has toned things down since initial complaints — so tread lightly at first until you figure out your favorites.

While no two days are the same at the buffet, a few highlights are sure to turn up more often than not. At the first of three tables is sambhar, a chunkier than usual lentil soup with eggplant, curry leaves, tomatoes, mustard seed and tamarind, a flavoring Khanna says no Indian kitchen is ever without. Dal makhani also contains lentils in a flavorful onion-tomato gravy. Vegans, take note! The bulk of the savory items here contain no milk or butter — not even ghee. Even saag paneer, a buttery buffet standard, is made with tofu instead of the usual cheese, and soy milk, which adds a nice sweetness to undercut the heat. No amount of flavor is lost in the translation. Baigare baigan is a garlicky eggplant stew with coconut and tamarind that’s so rich and tasty carnivores would be fools to refuse it.

A second table of starchier items includes aloo paratha, a whole-wheat crêpe with a fiery filling of onions and potatoes, and vegetable uttapam, mini sourdough pancakes with the crunch of sautéed vegetables and a nice bite of spice. Khaman dhokla is an intriguing concoction of crushed lentils, yogurt and mustard that’s steamed. It tastes a lot like sweet cornbread. Further down the buffet are dahi vada, lentil doughnuts in yogurt, and pav bhaji, a mélange of onions, curried potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant and tomatoes, which diners are encouraged to slather on little square buns that will make White Castle fans smile. A few salad-like items include the fusion dish Chinese bhel with cool crunchy noodles, instead of typical rice, vegetables and “Chinese spices.”

Desserts, not vegan but awfully tempting, include the ultra-rich gulab jamun, warm pastry balls in a honey glaze spiked with cardamom, and the refreshing shahi tukda, a kind of thin pudding of toasted bread in milk swimming with almonds, pistachios and cardamom. Both make for great finales to a meal that at lunch is only $4.99, a bargain even by buffet standards, and just $7.99 on weekend evenings.

Fortunately, the diversity among this trio of restaurants heads off any chance of their becoming rivals. Indeed, India Chaat House is considering a weeknight buffet, which would make it perhaps the only Indian one in town. The arrival of Chaat House means that lovers of Indian food will have a lot to talk about — and a whole lot of great eating to do.

India Chaat House
4221 Lafayette Road 298-0772
Tuesday-Friday, noon-3 p.m.; 5-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 2 stars
Service: 3 1/2 stars

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