Journey to the Center of the Palate

With Chaatable, Chef Maneet Chauhan and her husband and partner, Vivek Deora, have brought the street food of their Indian childhood to the streets of Nashville

Nashville TN

The first thing I notice is: everything. A rush of color and light. Intoxicating, bright, sharp spices. Geometric ornaments across walls of vermillion and turquoise. Stained glass in a hundred colors. Parasols made from a rainbow array of textiles. Tens of thousands of bangles. And what appears to be a miniaturized front end of a minibus?

All my senses are pleasantly challenged at the entrance to Chaatable, the fourth gem of a restaurant in the expansive culinary crown of restaurateurs Maneet Chauhan and Vivek Deora. Like walking into a bazaar, stepping into Chaatable floods the mind with a delirious variety of images, textures, scents, and sounds.

That immediate impression was their intention, as Deora explains. “That sensory overload is critical. You walk into the restaurant and you’re blown away by the colors, hopefully, and that was what we wanted to achieve.” Like any long-lasting partnership, Deora and Chauhan break into each other’s sentences with supporting evidence, addenda, points of clarification, the rare I-told-you-so. “We wanted it to be—” Chauhan starts to say. “Colorful kitschiness,” her partner completes. “Kitschiness! Yeah,” she agrees.

Nashville TN

I’m surprised to hear that Chauhan and Deora did everything—from the hand-painted stained glass clerestory windows to the countless (well, forty thousand) bangles and the floor-to-ceiling images of Indian life that decorate the wall behind the bar—themselves. Though friends and coworkers did lend a hand, Chauhan proudly states, “Vivek and I literally rolled up our sleeves.” She gestures around the dining room. “All of this has been done by us. All the stained glass has been done by us.” When I ask why they didn’t bring in contractors, Deora exclaims, “What’s the fun in life otherwise?” Chauhan points out, “I also think that the passion that has gone into this place—that has led to the success. People see it. People feel it. The older you get, you start realizing that the personal touch is very important.”

Chaatable is the newest member of a family that includes three much-lauded sibling eateries (Chauhan Ale and Masala House, Tànsuǒ, and Mockingbird), along with breweries in Franklin (Mantra Artisan Ales) and Murfreesboro (Hop Springs). As is the case with any family, Chauhan and Deora aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but they struggle to deny that Chaatable is their most dearly beloved.

The concept has been on their minds since their 2014 arrival in Nashville. “There was nothing in terms of what we were planning for Chaatable,” Chauhan recalls. “So we knew that it was going to be a niche. People, at least out of initial curiosity, will come in. And we were confident enough that once they come in over here, we’ve got them.” She claps her hands for emphasis and flashes a sly smile.

Chauhan and Deora have dedicated this temple to chaat. It’s the Hindi word for lick, but it’s also used to describe the savory snacks served roadside throughout the subcontinent. As the menu helpfully points out: “[Chaat is] a generic term for the essential hand-held bites of Indian street food.”

Nashville TN

“Chaatable has been nothing but a journey of our lives,” Deora waxes poetically. “Twenty years of association together, and ten years of marriage together, then that transforms into Chaatable.” With a wide smile, Chauhan shares, “If you point at anything on the menu, we’ll be able to tell you why it’s on the menu and the story behind it.

“Growing up in India,” she continues, “for both of us, we weren’t allowed to have street food, because it was questionable where the water was coming from. But that was the most delicious food ever.” Parents: Want your child to love a thing? Forbid it. The verboten is almost certain to become an obsession, as it did for Chauhan and Deora. And now, Chaatable diners can enjoy the couple’s decades-long love affair with chaat.

The restaurant is both a celebration of Chauhan and Deora’s shared lives and a high-water mark in their portfolio. They’re making food that’s deeply meaningful to them—and Chaatable has been packed since day one. The duo recognizes that commercial success and culinary integrity are not guaranteed, even less so in tandem. “The fact that we can offer foods that we grew up with, that we are passionate about . . . We feel very excited that in a way we are pioneering, or being one of the first few people to show this Indian street food in America . . . We’re proud of representing a cuisine which has been around for centuries.”

Chauhan’s restaurants are built around stories. Tànsuǒ reevaluates Cantonese cuisine, winding back the clock to explore traditional recipes before their Americanization, and Chauhan Ale & Masala House certainly holds a special place in Chauhan and Deora’s hearts as their first restaurant. But Chaatable reflects a comfort in its own skin, a confidence without arrogance or ego. Deora speaks rapidly, with great enthusiasm and lots of dramatic hand gestures. “When you prepare something, if you know that you’re doing something which you think is good, you want to go ahead and let others enjoy. And when people feel good about coming into your restaurant and having a great cocktail, having a great food item, and they’re happy about it, it gives you a sense—at least to me—it gives me eternal joy.”

Nashville TN

Inside Chaatable, there are a handful of representations of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, but there’s another elephant in the room: Maneet Chauhan is a badass superstar celebrity chef, far beyond her local reputation as a successful restaurateur. However, you’d never know. It’s not like famous people sport badges featuring their IMDb profile, and Chaatable displays Bollywood posters, not a trophy case.

But I wouldn’t fault Chauhan for honoring her staggering achievements. Her role as a perma-judge on the televised cooking competition Chopped earned her a Broadcast Media Award from the James Beard Foundation. She’s the only Indian woman to appear on Iron Chef. When The View wanted to teach their many millions of daytime viewers about Indian cuisine, they called on Chauhan. She continues to be an in-demand public figure and one of the faces of Indian cuisine in America.

Once she established herself as an authentic culinary voice, Chauhan started looking for the right place to launch her own restaurant. Offers came in from New York, San Francisco, Chicago, all the capitals of fine dining—a list that now includes Nashville. At the time, Music City wasn’t exactly on the couple’s radar. “We had never been here,” Chauhan admits. “We’re like, ‘Who the beep goes to Nashville?’ We didn’t know it! Not only did we fall in love with the culinary landscape, because it was just taking off at that time, but I think what really fascinated Vivek was the business opportunity that this landscape offered us.”

You can find all that on Wikipedia; the stories that appeal to me are a bit more intimate. Take, for instance, when Chauhan and Deora learned they were expecting their second child, a brother and playmate for their then-three-year-old daughter, Shagun. This was 2014, when the couple was living in New York City as they planned Ale & Masala House. The timing was supposed to fit beautifully: restaurant opens mid-November, baby arrives late January. But Karma must have been excited to taste his mother’s cooking. Chauhan planned to serve her first customers at 5 p.m. that November afternoon. At 4:30, she delivered her child—three months premature.

Nashville TN

“Three months early,” Deora tells me, “means three months in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit]. Means three months of going over life in general.” Of course, Karma was in no shape to travel back and forth to New York, so the family stayed in Nashville. As an ex-New Yorker myself, I can attest to both the allure of the city and the revelatory space you find, mentally and physically, upon saying goodbye to all of that.

With room to breathe and reexamine their priorities, the couple recognized the good thing they had going. “Hey, it’s beautiful,” Deora remembers thinking. “We love the South, we love the people, we love the hospitality, we love the culture, the traditions. The kids could do with a little bit of non–New York attitude.” In an early front-runner for understatement of the year 2019, Chauhan describes the period immediately following Karma’s birth as “interesting.” She adds cheerfully, “What doesn’t break you just makes you stronger!”

The husband and wife team has wasted no time investing in their new hometown, but with four restaurants, two breweries, caring for two children under seven, plus media appearances, plus whatever secret parties all the famous people go to, I have to wonder: When do they even see each other? They both smile, sigh, and lock eyes. “The two of us,” Chauhan answers, “we thrive under this chaos and craziness . . . That’s why I think both of us work so well together, because we get the urgency of it.” Deora adds with a sincere sweetness, “You make this all fun.”

It helps that the pair truly, deeply love what they do. Just as Deora gets his eternal joy supplying customers a positive experience, Chauhan finds great satisfaction in her work. “This is one of those few jobs,” she offers, where “you cook, you send out, and you get instant gratification. I think that is absolutely amazing.” Our conversation is winding down and the restaurant is coming to life. The smells intensify. The clang and clamor of a busy kitchen echoes from the back. I’m getting hungry.

Nashville TN

I return a few days later for dinner. It’s a miserably wet, wintry night. I’m desperate to get there. But it’s my third loop around the packed parking lot between an apartment complex and Chaatable’s home at Charlotte and 40th. I roll down the window to get my bearings in the rain, and I can already smell curry in the air.

The clever menu is stuffed like a turkey with puns and wordplay. If we’d had the time, I’m sure Chauhan and Deora would’ve told me the story behind each and every dish. I’m left wondering—and laughing—at offerings like The Okra Winfried Show (fried okra), O.M.Ghee (cashews toasted in ghee, or Indian clarified butter) and Papadum Preach (crispy papadum crackers).

We start our meal with Build-a-Bhel. Bhel is essentially rice crispies for grown-ups. It’s like Snap, Crackle, and Pop discovered yoga, moved to Jaipur, and opened a food cart. The bhel is served in a tiffin, the ubiquitous metal boxes used for food storage and transport across India. We choose a few additions to the base ingredients, and our server assembles the bhel table-side. She gives the box a vigorous shake, which fills the air with a delicious aroma. Our march through the menu continues, stopping off in cold appetizers like Puff Puff Pass (semolina puffs filled with sweet and sour yogurt) and moving to hot, like Street Ballin’ (a potato fritter served on a buttered roll with chutney and chili). For our centerpiece, we choose Go Shorty!, a Mangalorean ghee roast strongly recommended by our hosts. When I ask the couple to choose one item to highlight, Chauhan shakes her head. “If you ask me for one dish, it’s like asking who my favorite kid is, and I will never tell you—it’s my son.” She and Deora howl with laughter and she adds helpfully, “I’m just kidding!”

Nashville TN

The ghee roast is unlike any Indian dish I’ve ever experienced. It’s a confit beef short rib with a ghee-based sauce emphasizing ginger and coriander. It’s magnificently rich and flavorful, bringing to mind the depth and complexity of the legendary Mexican molé. Freshly baked puffed poori and turmeric rice are the perfect accompaniment to soak up the mahogany roux.

By the end of the meal, I’ve encountered so many spices, flavors, and colors that I somehow feel exhausted from travel—and that’s the point. Through Chaatable, Chauhan and Deora have created an experience that speaks to their love for their jobs, their family, each other, and their new and old homes. As fellow Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian aptly put it in Chauhan’s award-winning cookbook, Flavors of My World: “It is extremely difficult to have a knowledge of one cuisine, let alone many others, but in the hands of someone as knowledgeable, gifted, and refined as Chef Maneet Chauhan, the culinary world becomes yours, and your palate will thank you for the journey.”

I know Nashville is certainly grateful to her—and her beloved husband, Vivek Deora—for the trip.  

Chaatable is open Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

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