Ink's grown-up dining; go beyond fried at Chai Pani


Dining — like most activities that involve a nexus of trends, economics and desire — goes in cycles. Vegetables are in and oysters are in. Braised beef short ribs are out, not as out as sour apple martinis, but on their way.

So here’s my prediction for the new age: grown-up dining is back in. I base this observation not on multiple empirical data points but solely on the existence of one restaurant: Ink & Elm. This wholly unlikely restaurant has recently opened in that hotbed of cruddy, college-kid absorption food, Emory Village.

Before I trot out too much description of the booths (huge and plush), the lighting (caramel-lensed) or the wood tones (high gloss mahogany), let me tell you this: Ink & Elm has a particular vibe. The vibe says, “I’ll have the tournedos, the lady will have the scampi, and please send over the sommelier.”

Ink & Elm doesn’t feel like Buckhead or Midtown or Decatur. It isn’t pretending to be a sceney club, a farmhouse or a dive bar. Beautiful bottles of brown liquor gleam under a spotlight on bar shelves, the waiters dress in smart uniforms, and there is so much space between tables that shouting will never be an issue. Are your grandparents coming to the Emory graduation? Book now.

We really have two-restaurants-in-one here. Perhaps three. On the right you dine on oysters and burrata, order lamb cooked two ways and drink Bordeaux. On the left, you drink craft beers or just shots of bourbon. You order burgers, fried pimento cheese and ham sandwiches, and a variety of small plates to share. In between lies a loosely defined lounge area where you might settle into a deep sofa with your date and a round of craft cocktails. They make their own bitters here; they’re into it.

Emory Village? Really? Is Everybody’s Pizza rolling around in its grave?

The chef who oversees this trifecta is one Stephen Sharp, late of Blue Ridge Grill and French American Brasserie, whom you might espy behind the glass-walled exhibition kitchen in the rear. I’ve been once to the tavern and once to the dining room, and my early sense is the fancier stuff shines. Sharp has a fine-dining eye for plating food as well as a couple of nifty kitchen tricks that you’ll greet with delight.

His whole Gulf red snapper for two looks like a headless beast that swam into a fryer vat. But when you cut into it, you discover the backbone has been removed for your eating pleasure. A vibrant green herb salsa and a side of deeply flavored fennel confit make this dish great.

Other smart, original highlights in the menu include burrata outfitted with gently pickled squash and an umami-rich black garlic puree. Roasted broccoli (neither raw crunch nor overcooked mush) with blue cheese, peanuts and golden raisins tastes like a new flavor meme about to happen. But, Jiminy Cricket, $12? Guess that’s what you pay when you’re living large.

The tavern selections seemed a little too fluffed and camera-ready for bar fare. I might pass on the ultra-composed salads and tricked-out Brunswick stew presented in a mini-cauldron. However, I did like that fried sandwich with pimento cheese and country ham despite the unnecessary poached egg resting on one half of it. It’s like Bubba’s croque monsieur.

———

People tell me that Chai Pani — the vibrantly painted Decatur restaurant that serves a bespoke riff on Bombay street food — makes some mean cocktails. Tamarind-spiked mojitos, chili-charged margaritas and all kinds of other boozy refreshment.

I can’t tell you firsthand because I’ve never once felt the temptation to order a drink stronger than beer. I don’t know what it feels like to want a cocktail with Indian food. I do enjoy the restaurant’s nimbu pani, however, which is a kind of fresh lime soda sharpened with a sprinkle of salt. It tastes like nature’s own Gatorade and goes down brilliantly.

People also love Chai Pani’s signature appetizers — matchstick fried okra tossed with seasonings and kale pakoras fried in a thick gram (chickpea flour) batter. They are both novel for a bite, but end up tasting greasy and one-dimensional, just sort of fried and brown. Remember when chefs used to garnish everything with fried leek matchsticks? They taste like that.

These two dishes, the “must orders,” kept me from appreciating Chai Pani for months. Now, I know. Forget the fried business. Get the thali!

Each day there’s a choice of vegetarian and nonvegetarian, which here offer the variety and delight of a great bento box. You might go for the day’s veg offering and get saag paneer (the menus are posted each day on Twitter: @chaipanidecatur). It’s darker, spicier and more rustic than other versions you may have had, with nicely chewy bits of spinach. (I suspect it’s frozen, and if so, I want the recipe.)

But the sides make things scrumptious. Chickpea sabji, a thin dal freckled with cuminy nigella seed, a crunchy red cabbage salad, raita, rice fresh roti bread, a gorgeously brittle pappadum and a scoop of carrot halwa for dessert.

Chicken malabar in a gingery coconut curry has a nice chili tingle and a lot of tender breast meat chunks. I’m more of a bony dark meat guy, but I still liked it a lot. The sides are all the same.

If you do want to try one of the street-food snacks, I’d recommend the sev potato dahl puri. The menu encourages you to call it “SPDP,” which makes me think of a police patrol. Small puri puffs come filled with fried gram noodles, potatoes, onions, chutneys and yogurt. Open wide and … pop!

Maybe a cocktail wouldn’t taste so bad right about now.



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