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Sleek, spicy, smart

Maneet Chauhan’s changing the very idea of Indian cuisine… with beer.
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A flight of Chauhan's house brews // photo by Lindsay Scott

A flight of Chauhan’s house brews // photo by Lindsay Scott

By the time the server brings me a snack of makhanas, lotus seeds flavored with chai masala, cumin and chili powder (imagine, say, a far more savory, doubly irresistible Cheeto), I’ve sampled two unusual brews—a saffron cardamom IPA, which has a citrusy kick along with a subtle spice profile, and a milk chai stout bearing an earthy spiciness. Beer brewed with Indian spices is just one of many surprises at Chauhan, the latest project by celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan (you’ve judged along with her while binge-watching “Chopped”); the new Nashville restaurant happily explodes all expectations of what Indian dining can be.

“India today is young, vibrant, hip—and that’s what we’re doing here,” she tells me. “I’m proud of my culture, but at times a bit frustrated with stereotypes.” There are certainly nods to tradition here, both in precise interior details and the culinary big picture. Tiny Ganesha-shaped purse-hooks, no two alike, are tucked beneath the bar, and you’ll find a few standard playbook items on the menu: kababs, naan (which my 6-year-old made a meal of), vindaloo, tikka masala.

But Chauhan’s signature masalas, ground and blended in house, also make unusual showings: blended into special butters, paired with pork belly—and brewed into the restaurant’s signature beers. Those beers, a collaboration between Chauhan and Nashville’s Cool Springs Brewery, are also designed to complement and enhance the spice blends in the cuisine. For example, a garam masala kölsch is crisp, drinkable, and a sturdy pairing for very spicy fare; the saffron cardamom IPA aligns with the sweet spice profiles of Chauhan’s six curries.

Chauhan’s ambitious swirling of inspirations from both the American South and England (in particular its many gastropubs, and London’s Brick Lane curry houses) with traditional Indian flavors is all part of her broader goal to make Indian dining more accessible.

“People get intimidated by Indian food,” says Maneet. “There’s a lot of things they don’t know, things they can’t pronounce. We’re making it more approachable and fun.”

Chauhan's bento-like tiffins // photo by Lindsay Scott

Chauhan’s bento-like tiffins // photo by Lindsay Scott

Her concept starts with visuals. Even with plentiful splashes of color, like multicolor votives and Bollywood flicks alighting a brick wall, the restaurant channels a cozy, dark, publike vibe. The combo makes a lot of sense: Indian food is deeply embedded in English pub culture—something Americans don’t have any trouble appreciating. Thus, the stage is set for some inventive acts of creative commingling in dishes like amritsari fish and masala aloo chips, guava-glazed barbecue baby back ribs, and Nashville hot chicken pakoras, which are served with a don’t-mess-around ghost pepper dipping sauce. (“My mouth is pulsing,” my husband said shortly after trying it.) The pakoras are a top-seller, Chauhan says, with the kale pakora chaat snacks an equally big hit. There’s also an “ode to Nashville,” a spin on the Southern meat-and-three: a tiffin (a partitioned metal canister; the Indian version of a bento box) filled with a meat and a sauce with three sides, plus naan, raita and papadum. “It’s a meat and eight, really,” Chauhan says.

Chef Chauhan’s decision to brew beers also grew out of a frustration with the same-old, same-old in Indian dining. “People try so hard to pair wines with Indian food,” she reflects. “More often than not, they choose an extremely sweet riesling because they are trying to negate the spices, which is not what wine pairing is about.” Too many disappointing experiences with wine selections got her thinking: How about brewing beers with Indian spices? She enlisted a homebrewer friend, began tinkering with recipes, and ultimately carried 12 of those into the restaurant.

Her current brewing partner, Cool Springs’ brewmaster Derrick Morse, has since taken a number of those recipes and tweaked them, at times dramatically. Morse has developed four beers for Chauhan, the latest being a chili-toffee porter. “It tastes like an English toffee bar up front and finishes with an almost sweet spice characteristic on the back end,” he says. “This one has a full story; the more you drink it, the more it has to tell you.” Morse, who brings a background in West Coast-style brewing to the partnership, says Chauhan’s ideas clicked instantly with his interest in spice- and pepper-heavy “off the wall” brewing, more for flavor than style. “Maneet started talking about the unique things she wanted to do, and I just went into the crazy with her,” he says.

Morse has encountered a few challenges—saffron, for example, is an especially pricey ingredient to brew with. But so far, he’s been able to mastermind his own takes on Chauhan’s recipes that work for both of them. The idea is to release two new beers seasonally, but the saffron cardamom IPA has been so popular, they’ve decided to tap it year-round.

And if that IPA and those hot chicken pakoras continue to lure visitors to Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Maneet Chauhan will have achieved her goal of a cool, contemporary joint that operates as a sort of gateway drug to Indian cuisine and culture. “I’ll slowly get them hooked on the flavors,” she says.

 


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