Choolaah Indian BBQ Offers a New DC Lunch Option
Never before has the food scene (or politics) in our nation’s capital been so tumultuous. Expensive steakhouses and fine dining restaurants are being shaken up by fast casual eateries – and Washingtonians are voting with their stomachs. One fast casual eatery that has become a favorite with diners across the DMV is Choolaah Indian BBQ. It’s part of the Cleveland, Ohio-based Choolaah restaurant group and is headed by co-CEOs Randhir Sethi and Raji Sankar along with Sethi’s wife, Simran, who is the director of culinary R&D and product development.
Together, the trio is redefining Indian cuisine for American diners, or, as Sankar puts it, “We are taking a different approach to Indian cuisine – authentic yet accessible, wholesome yet lighter and with no artificial colors or flavors. We use premium ingredients and elevate them with our special spice blends and classic – and healthier – tandoor oven cooking to create dishes so delicious, appealing and affordable that you will want to eat at Choolaah every day.”
Anyone who has eaten at a Chipotle is familiar with the fast casual or QSR (quick-service) model. It combines the ease and affordability of traditional fast food service with a focus on the kinds of fresh, quality ingredients usually found in upscale restaurants—and Choolaah exemplifies this new dining category at its best.
Exceptional service is never the exception and in fact, the dining experience is part of the restaurant’s raison d’être. According to Sethi, “Genuine hospitality is the essence of who we are and why we do what we do. Our exceptional team members take pride in making and serving delicious food every day in a beautiful, joyful setting.” Diners unfamiliar with Indian food will also appreciate the well-trained staff’s ability to explain any dish on the menu.
This attention to detail is evident in the modern, airy dining room, too. Raw wood-topped tables complement a minimal white decor that still manages to keep things bright and playful with accents of magenta, peacock, and goldenrod.
No matter where you look, there is some colorful artwork that evokes India’s ancient culture or contemporary pop culture. Don’t let the hip design fool you though; this is not a style over substance. Granted, the decor gets diners in the door, but it’s the food that makes people linger so they can eat their way through the menu.
Cutting-Edge Kitchens Borrowing Ancient Ideas
If you believe an open kitchen is high drama with an appetizing climax, Choolaah’s pristine kitchen is culinary theater at its best, but the state-of-the-art, bright orange glazed clay tandoor ovens take center stage.
The enticing aromas of freshly baked naan mingle with earthy spice blends and the savory smell of smoky, roasted meats. These custom-built ovens quickly reach and retain internal temperatures of 600 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring the food cooks quickly and consistently, and is healthy without sacrificing quality or taste. Although these tandoor ovens are high tech, they are based on a Punjabi tradition called sanjha chulha or communal clay tandoor oven.
Tradition and Taste Merge to Create a New Indian Menu
Naturally satisfying dishes are the result of years of thorough research and testing by co-CEO Sethi, and his wife, Simran. From the outset, Simran says they wanted their new restaurant to serve “the best examples of traditional dishes,” so they moved back to India for two years to eat. To really understand the flavors that make Indian food so distinct they tried food “from the most humble dhabas (eateries) to the most exclusive restaurants, from chaats (street snacks) to chutneys and biryanis to barbecue. And we didn’t stop with India. We visited many countries in Asia, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom. In London alone, we sampled dishes at 22 different spots in two days.”
What’s On the Menu
Visit with a group (including the kids), so you can order a variety of dishes. From one region, city, and cook to the next, India’s culinary blueprint varies by flavor, intensity, and heat and at Choolaah every dish is prepared with “pedigree ingredients that have been scrutinized for quality, provenance, and sustainability.”
Ingredients include humanely handled chicken from Bell & Evans, halal, meadow grazed lamb, Amish-made Indian paneer cheese using Sethi’s grandmother’s recipe, aquaculture salmon from the Faroe Islands, and non-GMO organic vegetables and tofu.
Keen to retain this authenticity and quality, Choolaah has its spices shipped directly from India. In India, the masalas reflect regional cuisines, family recipes, and the chef’s personal taste preferences, and the chefs at Choolaah created proprietary masalas that include mint, cumin, cilantro, coriander seeds, asafoetida, turmeric, ginger, garlic, fenugreek, and many other seasonings.
What to Order
The menu can accommodate carnivores, seafood fans, vegetarians, and vegans, and even dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free, or garlic and onion-free. Depending on your appetite and palate, you may choose from tandoori barbecue bowls or wraps, masalas, street snacks, biryanis, sides, greens, naans, and dessert.
As I said before, go as a group toshare as many different dishes as possible and get at least one dish from each category.
As they say in Hindi, “Kripyā bhojan kā ānnaṅd lijīyai!” or please, enjoy your meal. This could be your first of many casual stops on our list of 101 casual restaurants in America.