December 7, 2021

Chintan Pandya’s Grub Street Diet

Chintan Pandya dreams of dosas and cricket. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur In the New York City…

Chintan Pandya dreams of dosas and cricket.
Illustration: Maanvi Kapur

In the New York City restaurant world, 2021 has been the year of Dhamaka. Chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar opened the downtown restaurant in March, and ever since, it’s been the most-talked-about restaurant in town. (Case in point: Esquire just named it one of their best new restaurants this year.) As if that weren’t enough, in October, the team opened a new restaurant with chef Vijay Kumar, called Semma, which is the fourth under their Unapologetic Foods group, with two more expansion-primed concepts on the way. Is Pandya feeling harried? “The kids are more difficult to handle than the restaurants,” the father of two says, “so I’m not worried about my restaurants.”

Thursday, November 11
Started off the day with masala chai that I make on my own each day. In India, there’s a specific plant where I come from; we call it leeli chai. It’s in the lemongrass family. I grow it. I have the whole plant at home, it has been with me for six or seven years now. I nurture the plant every morning. I boil the water, then I add the leaves from the leeli chai, grate ginger, then the tea, then let it simmer for a few minutes. I drink my tea without sugar. That’s my masala chai.

My daughter was home, so I made a masala omelet sandwich, which we had together with some diced papaya and grapefruit. When I make the omelet, what I do is I take a little bit of butter, add some red onions and chopped red tomatoes, and sauté those well. Then I add a little green chili and ginger, mix it all up, and toss in a little bit of red chili powder, turmeric powder, salt, and chopped cilantro. Finally, I add in the eggs and my Amul cheese (it’s from India, I get it from the Indian store over here) and make it like a sandwich. The bread is just regular from the market. Whatever my wife gets. She normally gets the whole-wheat bread from Costco.

Had a busy day as we had a collaboration with Mighties Burgers, so my next meal was a Mighty Masala burger with masala fries. I genuinely love eating burgers. I’m more of a pizza guy, but I love eating burgers. My metabolism is very bad, so I have to control what I eat. If I had a choice, I might end up eating two or three burgers a week. But to control my diet, I can now only afford to eat one burger a week. That’s a cheat day kind of a thing for me.

I had my cup of coffee with an almond croissant from Salon Sucre, in the Essex Street Market, around 2 p.m. These are very indulgent things for me. I can’t eat a full thing. I eat half. A lot of times, when I want to eat something but I know it’s not within my diet, I have multiple people with me and share with everyone. I often try to get food from the Essex Street Market. It’s a small market, we’re all small operators, so if I’m at Dhamaka, I try to pick up lunch from those places as much as possible. We also try to get staff meals from them sometimes, once a month maybe we’ll pick up a meal.

At around four, Roni and I had a meeting on the Upper West Side, and while coming back, we stopped at New Foods of India in Curry Hill. I went to pick up something I needed, and there was a samosa that I thought looked very nice. I’m very picky about eating a samosa. I thought it was a good-looking samosa, so that’s why I bought it, but it was very greasy, actually. The original flavor is potato and green peas, so that was the one I got. I’m not a big guy who believes in those chicken samosas. I’m not that guy. I’m a very simple guy, taste-wise. I think what happens is when they make this chicken samosa, the mixture becomes very dry inside. Growing up, the memories I have are of the green pea and potato samosa. I want that nostalgia in me when I eat that samosa.

The samosa connects with me a lot, and that’s why I love samosas. I genuinely do. I crave good samosas and try them everywhere I travel. They’re sort of a benchmark because I think nobody has been able to figure out how to do a samosa right in America.

Before starting service, I had a cup of coffee and some gluten-free crackers that Roni gave me.

After service, I headed over to Semma to do a tasting for venison and vegetables with dosa. I like all kinds of meat. I cook everything. What happened is we are working on this cut of venison that we are only using for this particular dish. We had this new cut of meat that I needed to try, which is how I ended up going to Semma.

Ended my day with a can of seltzer water while driving back home with my music. I listen to a lot of Bollywood music, and that’s my thing. The playlist at Dhamaka is mine. So are the ones at the other restaurants.

I live in Central Jersey. There’s a small city called Sayreville, and I am sure you have never heard of Sayreville. The only thing famous about Sayreville is that Jon Bon Jovi is from Sayreville. That’s the only claim to fame Sayreville has. People ask me, “Why do you live there?” The only reason is that my in-laws live across the road, so it helps a lot for my wife and my kids.

Friday, November 12
Started my day with masala chai, grapefruit, some khakhra (an Indian snack), and Parle-G, a biscuit. Khakra is a thin cracker, like a crispy bread. It used to be that my mom would make fresh bread at home, and the next day, she would put them on the pan, apply some butter, and give it to us as a snack. But now it’s become a very commercial product, so you can get a lot of these in the store.

At around one, I had coffee with some nuts at Dhamaka. For lunch, I had a mushroom sloppy from Fat Choy, my go-to lunch place. I eat there once a week. Sometimes twice a week. I think it’s a very simple food, and I love that food and the people who run that restaurant. It’s a husband-wife team. Phenomenal people. I love going to eat there. It’s a comforting place for me, let’s put it that way. A lot of people go there for the mushroom sloppy, but the most underrated dish over there is the cauliflower and bok choy. It’s outstanding.

At around four, we had a tasting for our fried-chicken concept, Rowdy Rooster, which we are going to open next month. So I had a good amount of fried chicken. I’ve been doing research for this fried-chicken concept for two years now. In New York City, my No. 1 place is Peaches Hot House. Extra hot. My second favorite is Bob White. A lot of people disagree with me about Peaches. They say it’s a very inconsistent product. Maybe I’ve gotten lucky.

The best fried chicken I’ve ever had was near Charleston, South Carolina, on Kiawah Island. There’s a shop called Kinfolk, and I thought that was the best fried chicken I ever had in my life. I think it was the flavor, the crust, the taste. Everything was perfect. I went to Kinfolk when I was on Kiawah for only a few days, and then I went back two more times.

Had a cup of coffee and once service was over I headed to Adda, our restaurant in Long Island City, and sampled tandoori poussin, chili cheese toast, and vada pav. If you ask me where I like to eat the most, it’s the Long Island City restaurant. That menu is literally what I like to eat. That’s why I love going there. My wife and I just had guests over for Diwali, so I packed the food from Adda because my wife told me, “Just get the food from Adda.” She knows I love it.

The day again ended with seltzer water while driving. Usually I have the flavored ones at home, but I like drinking seltzer when I’m driving late at night. I don’t have any specific brand I like. The ones at home are from Costco.

Saturday, November 13
Since it was a Saturday, my wife cooked breakfast. I had an early day as I was cooking for an industry event, La Fête du Champagne, in the afternoon. My wife made masala chai with egg bhurji, Indian-style scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes, everything. Saturdays are a good day for me.

Once we reached and set up for the event, I tasted multiple different wines and Champagne with some Ibérico ham, cheese, oysters, pâté with pickles, and sliders from different restaurants and chefs. I also had dahi batata puri, which we were serving at the event, and a cup of coffee before leaving. After, I went to Adda and tried the kale pakora and Sichuan cauliflower.

For service, I was at Semma. Once the shift was over, I had Gunpowder Dosa and Lobster Moilee. I love eating dosas. That’s my top food to eat. When I go back to Mumbai, there are a lot of dosa carts on the road, and I end up eating one dosa a day. A little closer to home, there’s a place in Bridgewater, New Jersey, called Balaji Temple café, in the Sri Venkateswara Temple, that I think is outstanding.

I check in on things at Semma, but there are people who have been working with us for a long time and they are always empowered with more responsibility. It gives us more time to focus on expansion.

I think micromanaging is good when you only want to do one restaurant, but if you want to grow, you want to have a bigger vision, you have to empower people who are working for you. On a day-to-day basis, I’ll go there, I’ll go to all the restaurants, I’ll share my feedback with them. But when it comes to day-to-day operations, other people are responsible for that.

Sunday, November 14
It was a great Sunday with the final of cricket T20 World Cup and duties of breakfast with my wife. Anyone who is from India is a super big fan of cricket. It just happened this year that we were out of the playoffs.

Had my masala chai with grapefruit and beetroot paratha with some homemade sweet mango pickle. Also had some Parle-G biscuits.

Pickles are always at our house. My mother is coming from India to stay with us moving forward; she’s going to bring a batch of pickles for me that I like.

For lunch, I had some homemade tagliatelle with quattro formaggi sauce and cannoli from New Amsterdam Pasta in Essex Market. I like Italian food once in a while. What happens with the market is it’s not like it’s not a cooked dish. You buy fresh pasta from them, you buy the sauce, you just blanch it and finish. I just had it at the restaurant. I just get hungry nowadays a lot.

Had my coffee before service along with staff meal at Dhamaka, which was chicken biryani. Family meal always varies. The other day we had Popeyes. The staff wanted the fried-chicken sandwich, and there’s one across the road, so we just got Popeyes across the road.

After service, I tried a few dishes at Dhamaka. Ragda pattice, paplet fry, and chicken pulao.

Monday, November 15
I was off for the day except for an appointment in the evening, so after dropping off the kids, I had my cup of masala chai with a grilled-cheese sandwich and a bowl of papaya with tangerine. This was just plain grilled cheese. On Mondays, normally I’m not cooking. But I had some extra time to do whatever I wanted, so I made this grilled-cheese sandwich with Gruyère.

For lunch, I made some egg fried rice with vegetables. India has Chinese cuisine itself; I really like that kind of thing. My wife got a sauce from somewhere, it’s this Indian Chinese sauce. I scrambled eggs, added some peas and carrots, added the sauce, added the rice, tossed it up. We don’t eat meat at home. My wife is vegetarian. If I’m cooking fried rice, sometimes I’ll add a little chicken into it, but not at home.

I had my cup of coffee while driving to Dhamaka.

Had a virtual cooking class where I cooked kadai chicken with jeera pulao. I’m one of the chefs on the 100 Pleats app, that’s how I ended up doing this class. The clients wanted to learn how to make these two dishes. I was at the restaurant, just cooking, and so I had that for dinner.

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