Like a phoenix from the ashes…
Chai Street in its original incarnation was a bold move. A new concept, an intriguing new direction for the trailblazing Mint and Mustard under Anand George. It quickly became a firm favourite with many, but things changed and the decision was taken to expand Mint and Mustard into Chai Street’s adjacent premises.
Big news, then, that the idea was not dead but asleep, and relocating to the (let’s be polite here) lived-in glamour of Canton. After lively anticipation born of a two-year absence and an exemplary launch event, how does the reimagined Chai Street stack up? What is ‘stacking up’? Why does it matter? Why all these questions? When will the good stuff start?
A whistle-stop tour of the company’s history has doctors Ajit Kandoran and Latheesh Kottilil setting up the original parent restaurant in 2006 to recreate their vision of Keralan food in South Wales. It flourished, acclaim coming hard and fast, the restaurant playing host to a series of South Indian chefs whose vision and skill have flourished here and who continue to illuminate the city- Anand George and Pramod Nair to name but two.
But things move quickly in the restaurant business; that was then, this is now and Chai Street ironically now stands mere yards from Anand George’s current flagship Purple Poppadom.
It’s a compact space, this. The decor is informal and will remind loyal customers of the former site. The emphasis here is very much on the informal rather than on fine dining. Bollywood film posters, panels of carved wood and reclaimed timber, the exposed brick behind the bar: this is somewhere for relaxed, easy eating, for sampling across the endearingly presented brown paper menu.
The short wait for your food is easily whiled away checking out the film posters: think Katiwok without the mind-altering drugs. Raja aur Rana caught my eye, with its promise of classic buddy movie action and- I’m indebted to IMDB for this- the presence of goons. They get a bad press, of course, and the synopsis neglected to stipulate whether they were the hired variety, but I think we can all agree that any film is improved by their presence.
History and aesthetics are fine things of course, and neither of them matter a whit unless the kitchen delivers. Happily, it does. In spades. I tried every starter on the menu (I know, the sacrifices I make for you people…); in mitigation, they were (slightly) reduced portions of each. I live to give.
First up: Chicken 65 was as good as it had been at the opening, with a subtle background warmth of ginger, garlic and chillies. As a concession to some sort of moderation, I only had two bhajis- an aubergine version and the more typical onion.
And very good they were, too. Aubergine’s not a vegetable I care for, much, but the light batter set it off a treat. The chai samosas were crisply coated and melting inside, and none of these starters had a suspicion of greasiness about them. You quickly get the idea: this is light, fresh cooking, equally suitable for a quick snack or something more substantial.
That little ball (pictured) was curry leaf-infused mashed potato in a light batter: it’s included in the samosa basket. Chicken lollypop was a real standout. I’ve eaten some truly superb fried chicken over the last year- BAO Bar at KERB for one, Dhruv Baker’s Café Malaysia supperclub for another- and this was a worthy rival, with its crust giving way to tender thigh meat. ‘Moreish’ doesn’t really cover it: these did the rounds at the launch party and I had to stop myself garnering them by the fistful whenever the tray hove in view.
A second plate of starters duly arrived. The finely-minced lamb of the pattice was delicately spiced and made a pretty pair with the poricha kozhi chicken breast, both hiding under a light crumb. A sheek kebab roll, finished on the bars of the grill, was tart with tamarind- always a good thing to these eyes- yet light with shredded vegetables.
Mains? I’m a sucker for a proper biryani. I wanted lamb, the waiter recommended the chicken; we compromised and I had both. They arrived in little earthenware pots with a spiced yoghurt, the food nestled under lids. The rice itself was light and fragrant with cardamom, the meat falling apart easily. In short, excellent eating in that life-affirming way all really good biryanis (and all great rice dishes) have about them.
Most uncharacteristically I finished with dessert. A reimagined carrot cake in the form of gajar ka halwa was heartily recommended by the staff and it had not a suspicion of deadly stodge about it, but a savoury-sweet sticky-chewiness studded with cashews and sultanas, crowned with vanilla ice cream.
By now I was close to muttering ‘never mind a chai wallah, get me a barrow wallah to get me to the car…’ but that’s testimony more to my altruistic overindulgence, than any heaviness in the cooking. Quite the contrary.
The Chai Street philosophy fits well here. The bustle of Canton provides a heavy footfall for casual passers-by and shoppers; it’s a short dap (a mile and a half, I suppose?) from the city centre- ideal for working up an appetite. But it’s also well worth taking a diversion, that roundabout route that just happens to bring you swinging past its green frontage and through its doors. The approach here may well be ‘in quickly, out soon’, but there is no sense of compromise in the welcome, in the textures and the flavours. This is stuff to send you out into the cold and the dark with chilli warmth still playing on your lips, heat in your belly and a spring in your step.
More formal dining is close at hand with vertical neighbours Chez Francis and Purple Poppadom, but right now Chai Street has brought some excellent street food to this side of the city, and dining out in Cardiff just got that little bit better.
Please note: Since I was invited to Chai Street, my food and drink was complimentary. I consider that this did not significantly impact on my opinion. I was not obliged to write a positive review, and the restaurant did not see this review before it was posted on this blog.
153 Cowbridge Road East
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This blog is a very simple thing.
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I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
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