Despite the low key profile of Chaiwali, the year old Indian restaurant that occupies the first two floors of a brownstone in Harlem, it has charmed its way into a deservedly good review from Pete Wells. The owner, who is also the chef, decorator, and occupant of the brownstone's upper stories, has created a unique eatery that Wells explains as having, “its own way of looking at the world,” and continues to speculate that the owner, Ms. Trehan, “seems to have built the restaurant on the belief that the things she likes will make the rest of us happy, too. You see this in eccentric bits of decoration, like the stuffed peacock that perches on the upstairs bar… there’s also a taxidermied antelope head and a flamboyant mural of a tigress and butterflies.”
He says this in an endearing way, one that commends the ability of Ms. Trehan to establish a restaurant that feels like home — one that isn't stuck up or pretentious. He contends that, “The menu feels personal, too. It reminds me of the relaxed, light-handed, modern food that Americans with roots in India, like Ms. Trehan, may cook at home.” Her eatery — from the food to the décor — is genuine. Wells made it clear that though, “her recipes probably aren’t her grandmother’s, but she pays attention to the quality and balance of saffron, fenugreek, ginger and coriander.” In other words, the food she serves hasn't been altered to appease the masses, who may rather more elaborate platting and styling of the food.
Ms. Trehan's menu is primarily praised by Wells, who begins the acclaim with the samosas which had a “potato-pea filling with a decidedly peppery bite,” seeing it as, “a treat to find samosa wrappers as thin and greaseless as these in a restaurant.” He imagines how her cooking would evolve with the seasons saying that in the winter, “the first course could be Chaiwali’s silky carrot soup, intensely flavored with saffron and a few fried curry leaves that float on the surface. In summer, maybe the appetizer would be the Goa shrimp ceviche, sweetened with little cubes of mango...” Wells had particular admiration for the chef's vindaloo lamb chops stating that, “Chaiwali makes vindaloo with complexity and nuance, nothing like the aggro-curry the color of a rusted tailpipe served in generic Indian restaurants.”
Though Wells' review was mainly positive, dishes like the black pepper chicken and the okra fries didn't fare well. He wouldn't again order the Desi pasta, which changes nightly, but would rather “the clever veggie burger, a tall fritter of kale pakora with avocado, lettuce and tomato on a bun, made a more appealing meatless dinner.”
As for the desserts, Wells says that they “find a happy medium between too basic and too complicated.” Going on to say that the “Alice’s Jamaican rum and biscuit pudding tastes something like a tiramisù spiked with booze” and that surprisingly, the dessert that actually scared him the most was his favorite, the curry cumin cookies. He says that “these little ginger-spiked bites, crumbly like shortbreads, are refreshing and bright, with a black pepper finish that took me by surprise in the best way.” To wrap up, Wells strongly suggests you order a cup of chai, as the chai at Chaiwali isn't “the lukewarm broth of dirty milk in a paper cup that you get in coffee shops,” but rather a “potent mocha-colored drink, like a cortado made with strong black tea and spices.”