Small Bites

Popular Pani

Tiny Chai Pani is bursting with big news. First, the Indian street-food restaurant was mentioned in an October New York Times travel article, "36 Hours in Asheville, N.C.," that also mentioned The Admiral and Farm and Sparrow Bakery, among other local haunts. Asheville residents, the reporter wrote, "are particularly taken with a bright, year-old cafe called Chai Pani for its fresh, cilantro-strewn takes on Indian street food.” The same week that the NYT mention appeared, the restaurant experienced its busiest Saturday since opening.

This month, Chai Pani makes news again with a five-day celebration of the Indian holiday, Diwali. "It's a festival of lights," explains owner Meherwan Irani. "It is to India what Christmas is to America. It's a really festive time."

"I don't know that any Indian restaurant has ever done Diwali here, but we want to introduce it to the Asheville community," he says. From Wednesday, Nov. 3 through 7, Chai Pani will be festively lit and brightly decorated "to invite prosperity inside" says Irani.

During Diwali, the restaurant will offer a special menu and henna skin-painting. Irani is also importing special Indian desserts to echo the Diwali tradition of celebrants presenting sweets and snacks to each other. The desserts are made by Sudha Moy Dutta, who hails from one of the most famous dessert-making families in his native India. He operates Mithai House of Indian Desserts in Cary, and takes special pains to craft his products “the old-fashioned way," says Irani.

In mid-November, Chai Pani will host a benefit for a charity near and dear to the hearts of the owners and friends of the restaurant. On Monday, Nov. 15, the restaurant will host a fundraiser to raise money for the Meher Free Dispensary. The MFD is an India-based nonprofit that provides free medical care to people suffering from acute and chronic illnesses, or in need of post- or prenatal care.

"They serve roughly 25,000 patients a year, free of charge," says Isaac Clay, organizer of the event, advisor on the Meher board and manager of Chai Pani. "India has a universal health care system, but there's so many people and limited funding. The Dispensary serves the rural poor that live in the immediate area and beyond, to a degree."

The Chai Pani event will revolve around a multi-course meal that will deviate from the street fare the eatery generally serves. The food, says Irani, will focus on what's "traditionally served on very special occasions … something that a special cook is usually called in to do. It will be fun."

Planned dishes include biryani, a complex and layered Indian rice dish, traditionally reserved for weddings and other celebrations. The restaurant will also serve lentil dumplings with curried yogurt, a variation on paneer, a salad and a few other assorted dishes. Both vegetarian and meat options will be offered.

From 3 p.m. until dinner begins at 7 p.m., the restaurant will also host an open-house and raffle showcasing goods imported from India, as well as gift certificates and coupons from Asheville establishments.

Dinner costs $40 per head, $55 with wine pairings. All proceeds go to the fully volunteer-run MFD — which means every penny earned goes directly to people in need. Reservations are required, and can be made by calling Chai Pani at 254-4043.

Chai Pani is located at 22 Battery Park Ave. in downtown Asheville. For more information, visit chaipani.net.

New Roots

The Roots Café, formerly located in the River Arts District, closed late this spring to focus on catering and wholesale production of products like the very good Roots hummus. That hummus is currently available where local goods are sold, including the French Broad Food Co-op, Earth Fare and Trout Lily Market. For the full list of purveyors, visit rootsfood.com.

Now, Roots is re-opening its café in the kitchen space vacated by the Twin Cousins Kitchen in the Grey Eagle Tavern. Teresa Koch, manager of Roots, says that Roots Café will open in the first week of November, serving dinner when the Grey Eagle Tavern is open for a show. Koch adds that the café will open its doors at 5 p.m. on those days. “That gives people time to come, even if they don't have a ticket to the show,” she says.

“We'll have a fun variety of Southern plates and platters,” says Koch of the menu. A grilled pimento cheese sandwich, boiled peanuts, a hummus sampler and catfish and chips will be among the options available. “All very reasonably priced,” she adds. “We're trying to keep everything under $10.” Koch also says that the café sources as much local product as possible and uses all-organic dairy.

Roots catering and wholesale food production is still operating in a separate space from the Grey Eagle, meaning production of that great hummus isn't likely to slow down, thank goodness.

“We loved having the café and serving the locals here in the River Arts District, so we're very excited to re-open and re-connect with the community," says Koch. "We're very happy to be open for the public again.”

The Grey Eagle Tavern is located at 185 Clingman Avenue in West Asheville. For information about show times, visit thegreyeagle.com. Koch says that the Roots Café menu will be added to the Grey Eagle Tavern website soon.

Soup for you!

Mary Kelley wants to keep you cozy with soup. Founder of Swallow Soup, Kelley brings comforting creations like tomato bisque or yellow split-pea-and-kale soup right to your door — assuming your door is within a five-mile radius of downtown. If you'd like, she'll also bring you a fresh spring mix salad and locally baked City Bakery bread. Sweets from Short Street Cakes are available as well.

Here's how Swallow Soup works. The menu for the week is posted late on Monday night at swallowsoup.com. Orders must be placed by the following Sunday for delivery the following Thursday.

Though it may seem like quite a bit of advance planning for soup, think of it this way: "It's helpful for us because we know how much to order and we're not wasting food," says Kelley.

Kelley says that her delivery service was inspired by a similar business in Austin called the Soup Peddler. "He started out literally peddling his soup around town," says Kelley. Having children, it struck her that a soup business would be the perfect venture to allow her to work when the weather is chill — then spend the summers with the kids. "When the warm weather hits," she quips, "the Swallow flies."

Though the service has offered some exotic flavors like Indonesian carrot or a poblano posole with smoked tofu and hominy, Kelley thinks that offering more basic, traditional options may end up being the best plan of attack. "We're wondering if we're getting too eclectic," she says. "My tastes run toward the exotic, but we've noticed that people are picking the safer choices. We're just trying to feel out what everyone wants."

Kelley says that her soup business utilizes as much local and organic food as possible. Only vegetarian and vegan options are available at this point, but Kelley says that, if there's a demand, the duo will move toward adding meat-based selections. In that case, she adds, the company would source local meat only.

For now, soup production is split between Advantage West's Blue Ridge Food Ventures and Short Street Cakes, depending on volume. "They've both been amazingly supportive," says Kelley.

For more information, including ordering options, visit swallowsoup.com.

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com

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