The Chai Shop: A Jewel in the Crown
Warren Street, Hudson, is a many-splendored thing. Even those who claim they “hate to shop” get hungry several times a day, and Warren stands ready to feed them in varied and colorful ways, none more enchanting than The Chai Shop, a restaurant tucked in the back of Lillie K Traders that’s open only for lunch Friday through Sunday. Or perhaps the more old-fashioned “luncheon” is a better word, because once you’ve climbed those steps out front and passed through the eclectic Lillie K. showroom (more on that later) to enter Chai’s Anglo-Indian dining room, you’ll feel as if you’ve crossed an ocean and time-traveled back the better part of a century to the days of the Raj.
When east meets west, both in food and in interior design, a special magic can occur. Think: Vietnamese food, with its strong French influence and Indochine decor. The Anglo-Indian style of design marries western ideals of propriety and comfort with Indian color and verve. The food at the Chai Shop is also a meld. Unlike nearly every other Indian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, both here and abroad, Chai lays no claim to “authenticity.” Instead, it revels in the more modern idea of cherry-picking the best on all sides of the cultural divide. According to co-owner Lillie Kumar, the food at Chai Shop is Anglo-Indian, perhaps because that’s what she is; it seems to her to be the way she has eaten all her life. Evidence the papri chaat, a delicious starter of small crackers (called “crisps” here, naturally), smothered in assorted chutneys and a sprinkling of yogurt ($7).
But according to Lillie’s husband Raj, an ardent Italo-phile, it’s more Tuscan-Indian. “Tuscan and Indian food are siblings,” he claims. “The spices are day and night, but the results are the same.” Okay. At Chai little bits of Italy do pop up where you’d least expect them. The spicy faro vegetable soup ($8) gets a dollop of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of parmesan. Some sandwiches, such as the kathi roll with Khyber chicken ($11) or spiced mixed vegetables ($9), are served on paratha, traditional Indian bread, and come straight from India’s excellent street food repertoire. Others, such as the goan sandwich (pork vindaloo, a spicy stew, served in a bowl with a side of toasted Tuscan bread), seem more invented and cross-cultural. And the amazing Delhi Wall, though conventionally sandwich-like, is made of Amul cheddar cheese imported from India that’s been sprinkled with roasted red peppers and fresh herbs ($8) before grilling on Tuscan bread. One bite, and you’ll never want your grilled cheese any other way.
Most dishes at The Chai Shop come with a small side of balsamic vinaigrette-dressed salad, generously sprinkled with toasted nuts and dried fruit. Like nearly everything here, including meats, the salad greens are organic and locally sourced. No alcohol is served, but you’ll hardly notice. The ambiance alone is a high, and the large, delicious beverages, such as hibiscus lemon grass lemonade sprinkled with finely ground black pepper ($5), fully engage from first sip to last, much as any artfully constructed cocktail does.
For diners who also like to shop, this destination has it all. The bazaar-like Lillie K Traders showroom in front has a smattering of vaguely campaign-style clothing, some jewelry, and some especially sumptuous chenille scarves. There are also Italian sconces, but the main attraction here are the Indian textiles, some already made up as impossibly soft comforters and jewel-like toss cushions, others in sample books, that are sold, Euro-style, at one price to retail customers, another price to-the-trade. Importing textiles from India is Raj Kumar’s principle business. He also does interior design from a room behind and in full view of the dining room. Much like the lovely food that comes out of their kitchen, one senses that the adventurous Kumars are making it up as they go along. — Marilyn Bethany
NOTE: As of 6/13, The Chai Shop has closed for business.