Twenty-five years ago, the Nashville Scene introduced the annual contest inviting readers to complete the sentence “You are so Nashville if … ” or, as it came to be known at the paper, YASNI. The entries were compiled into one thick multipage document for the discerning opinions of the Committee of Insiders, who, through many hours of debate and discussion, would eventually choose the winner, the runners-up and a few hundred others deemed worthy of publication such as “You are so Nashville if you think our Parthenon is better because the other one fell apart” and “You are so Nashville if your church congregation is referred to as the studio audience,” to name a few.
One of the sub-categories was something called “The Albies,” named for founding publisher Albie Del Favero, a Nashville native who enjoyed the submissions that pined for the past: “You are so Nashville if you remember the Nativity scene at Centennial Park,” or “You are so Nashville if, after buying your Easter outfit at Harvey’s, you had a banana split at Candyland.” Albie was awash in nostalgia, while the rest of us — transplants all — scratched our heads and laughed out loud at, “You are so Nashville if you’re the last person to know you’re gay.”
As Nashville absorbs daily announcements of big new construction projects and next-big-things, there are frames of reference that unite more Albies. They knew 12South, East Nashville, Sylvan Park and Germantown as sketchy urban neighborhoods with minimal, if any, dining and retail, but plenty of older, charming and affordable houses. They remember when the Gulch was a gritty expanse of dirt and gravel crisscrossed by rail lines and dotted with squat, industrial buildings.
They remember when local dining choices were country clubs, steak houses, meat ‘n threes or fern bars, and the only ethnic eating to be found was on the steam table at Patti Myint’s venerable International Market in a corner building on Belmont Boulevard.
Old-timers give other old-timers directions to anywhere in town by where things used to be. Summer Classics is where Becker’s was, The Hutton is in the old Social Security Building, Sinema is where the Melrose Theater/Scene III was. The new Sutler is where, well, the old Sutler was.
The first 10 years I lived in Nashville, I drove often to Atlanta to see bands that didn’t play here, shop for clothes that weren’t sold here and eat food — particularly ethnic food — that wasn’t cooked here. On one of the last trips I made before my first child was born, I bought a fabulous black leather miniskirt at Phipps Plaza, had dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant on Peachtree and saw the Rolling Stones.
I gave the skirt to my daughter after I aged out of it, I’ve seen the Stones at Vanderbilt Stadium (disconcertingly before sunset due to neighbors’ complaints) and now have at least a half-dozen Indian restaurants and several markets to satisfy my craving for naan, pakoras, samosas, lamb korma, dal and vindaloo.
And yet, the arrival of Maneet Chauhan and the opening of her restaurant Chauhan Ale & Masala House is cause for big celebration among Nashville’s curious epicureans. Not because she is a celebrity chef — which she is, particularly to Chopped fans—though I suspect the eminently approachable and down-to-earth chef might regard the label with the same eye roll I do. But because her stunning restaurant fills a void long missing from the Nashville dining portfolio — informed yet daring interpretations of an ethnic cuisine that also embraces local products and regional specialties.
All the “Albies” will know Chauhan’s location as where Café 123 used to be, or across from where 12th & Porter was. Newbies can GPS 123 12th Ave. N., and it will take them to the still-undeveloped (though not for long) fringe of the Gulch.
Smartly, architect Barry Brechak moved the point of entry from the narrow door on 12th Avenue to a wider and more welcoming entrance on Porter, flipping the orientation of the room from vertical to horizontal. At night, the lights in the overhand splash jewel tones on the sidewalk. The hostess stand centers the room, with the bar and lounge to the left and the dining room on the right.
Chauhan credits London Parfitt with preserving the bones of the century-old building — wood floors, brick walls, pressed tin ceiling and a fireplace — as the rustic canvas for rich colors, sensuous fabrics on the walls, booth cushions and pillows, and artisan lighting like this cluster of leaded glass in the lounge.
Even if your visit to Chauhan includes dinner, the window-wrapped lounge is a prelude not to miss. Try to snag a high-top table looking out on Porter or one at the window-mounted length of carved wood on the 12th Avenue side. Both are perfect spots to enjoy a Chauhan cocktail.
If you will be making a segue to dinner, the complimentary puffed lotus seeds in a silver martini glass are the perfect slightly salty snack to pique your appetite without filling you up.
The lounge also stands on its own — a 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. happy hour Monday through Thursday offers half-off specialty cocktails, wine and beer, as well as $6 bar bites and $5 jewel of the crown shots. I never escape the office in time to make happy hour, but I’d be happy any hour at Chauhan to build a meal from the bar menu and appetizers from the dinner menu.
The dining room has two seating options: free-standing tables or a lineup of spacious booths large enough for parties of six.
Though Chef Chauhan’s menu (executed with chef de cuisine Chef Vasisht Ramasubramanian, aka Chef V) is far more succinct than the dizzying repertoire in many of Nashville’s more traditional Indian restaurants, there are so many delightful options that, even on my first visit, had me strategizing my next … and the next after that.
One item I know I will order every time is the Gol Guppa Shots. Touted as another street food (clearly the streets of India are far more exotic than those of Nashville), nuggets of potato and garbanzo are nestled in the hollow center of lighter-than-air semolina puffs, then topped with a flirty fan of watermelon radish. Pour a bit of the mint cilantro water into the puff and pop in your mouth for a unique and delightful combination of flavor and texture.
Our party of four tried to cover the entrée bases, with one each from Kababs, Signature Preparations and Desi Fare. From the first category, which also offers chicken, salmon and seekh (minced meat formed into a loaf), we tried the paneer tikka — fresh cheese and vegetables marinated in spices and grilled in a tandoor. Served off the skewer with ramekins of mint chutney and pickled slaw, this is a very light dish that I would pair with an order of the warm, chewy naan or roti to construct little wraps. It’s one of several options for vegetarians.
I will always order lamb shank when it’s on a menu. Italian-style at Caffe Nonna, Lebanese at Epice. At Chauhan, Chef swathes her Kashmiri-spiced, braised shank in a creamy, caramelized onion-almond sauce, mild enough to allow the lamb flavor to dominate, a good thing if you’re a fan of the intensely flavored meat. Not everyone is, which just means more for me. The bed of tomato rice it perches on brings nice balance to the earthy dish.
Under Desi Fare, diners choose a protein from one column and a sauce from the other, which are listed from mildest (tikka) to hottest (vindaloo). We paired chicken with vindaloo and were challenged with a level of heat more in tune with Nashville’s signature dish than the aforementioned pakoras. We were grateful for the aromatic steamed basmati rice that accompanied it, and the freshly drawn glass of Mango Mint lager.
Some months ago one of the previews shown at the Belcourt was for a film called The Lunchbox, which uses the business of Mumbai’s lunchbox couriers as a premise for an unusual and unexpected love story. The dabbawallas deliver dozens of silver tiffins by bicycle from home kitchens through chaotic streets to working men all over the city. Monsoon Wedding is on my personal Top 10 Favorite Movies list, and this captivating preview makes the case for another entry from India.
At Chauhan, the kitchen packs your tiffin, which your server delivers to your table on foot and disassembles Chef’s endearing ode to our meat and three — a protein of her choice (happily for me it was more lamb), with three sides, bread and a bowl of raita.
The Lunchbox finally arrives at the Belcourt for two days only, January 24 and January 28, and I’ve already bought my ticket. (I wonder if I can persuade the concession stand to team up with Chauhan and offer bags of puffed lotus seeds as an alternative to popcorn?)
After the movie, I might head to Chauhan for a Love is Blind cocktail and dessert. The Spiced Maple Jaggery Pot de Crème comes in a jar more familiar to southerners than a tiffin, the tapioca-style custard flavored with maple and cardamom, topped with fruit compote and served with cookies. Chocolate takes the lead on the flourless chocolate cake with garam masala chocolate glaze served with a small scoop of chai ice cream.
Though Chef Chauhan had intended to split her time between Nashville and her other residence in New York, life has a way of delivering the unexpected. Blissfully pregnant with her second child as she was preparing to open Chauhan, she went into labor on opening night, November 18, and her first son was born three months premature at Centennial Women’s Hospital. “It really turned out to be a blessing,” she told me. “It makes you value and hold precious every day, know what’s important in life. And I have fallen in love with Nashville, so I am happy to be here.” That reminded me of the only unanimous winner of YASNI many years ago, “You are so Nashville if you never thought you’d stay.”
Her son, named Karma, is doing well but will remain in the ICU until his original birth date. And rather than Manhattan, the mother of two splits her time between the hospital and the restaurant. Watching Chef Chauhan make the rounds of her dining room, visiting every table, answering questions, making suggestions, hugging diners, and smiling joyfully and genuinely for photos with them, I have a sense that she will be with us a good long while. Through her warm hospitality and spectacular food, Maneet Chauhan loves her guests every night, and clearly, they are loving her right back.
Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos today.
Kay West has written for local, regional and national publications, as well as for the music industry. She continues to write locally, including covering restaurants for StyleBlueprint, and is the Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com.