Indian restaurants are so few and far between in Honolulu that they’ve got fiercely loyal customers. Folks swear by Team Taj Mahal’s size-of-your-face naan or Team Maharani’s burn-your-tongue curries, and heaven help the poor fool who dares to dispute. It’s as bad as the Olympics.
Like the other Indian spots, Chutney is small and family-run. Owner Kamal Pandey and his daughters Sam and Mahima run tables, while aunt Anju works in the kitchen as chef. She doesn’t speak a word of English and is half-Nepalese, so she cooks Nepalese style. Think less cream and more spices than standard Indian fare, but the flavors are fundamentally similar with cumin, coriander and tamarind.
Located across the street from Wal-Mart, the bright orange restaurant has open walls and doors for breezy airflow. It’s tiny with only five tables, which were all empty when we walked in. The original restaurant in Kauai fit over a hundred customers, and according to Mahima Pandey, it was just too big. “We moved to Oahu because we wanted something small. We also have more clientele here,” says Pandey.
While we waited for the rest of our party to find street parking, I asked Pandey for recommendations. “The pakora,” she promptly replied. “They are basically vegetable fritters, really flavorful. Also, the vindaloo curry, it’s our specialty curry with vinegar.” Her personal favorite? “The channa masala,” she said. “Beans with special homemade herbs and spices.”
We got all three. My part-Malaysian roommate is accustomed to South Asian fare, so she rattled off orders: the chicken tikka ($12.95), chicken masala ($10.95), bread basket ($9.95) and mango lassi ($3.95). With the pakora ($5.95), lamb vindaloo ($12.95) and channa masala ($9.95), the bill came up to $73.93 for five people. (You go up and pay first at the counter.)
The pakora was first to arrive. The dish is simple: spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and potatoes mixed together and lightly fried for croquette-like fritters. Craggly, textured edges give way to a soft, chunky filling, and even those who originally looked doubtful cleaned off the plate. We were given three homemade chutneys, and since these sauces are the restaurant’s namesake, I was excited to try them out. One sauce was tomato and garlic-based with a spicy kick, the other a sweet, tangy tamarind sauce. Both were delicious, but my favorite was the cilantro mint chutney, which I generously paired with every dish that followed. Every time I ran out, I went up to the self-serve counter to grab more.
Oddly enough, dessert came next. Apparently the side dish of the day was cheesecake from their friends Happy Cakes Bakeshop, served with a side (or a side’s side?) of mango pudding. I honestly don’t mind dessert before dinner, but it was an odd sequence of food. Confused, we set it aside to wait for the actual meal. Other days, said Mahima, the side dish can be kidney bean or mushroom bean soup.
Meanwhile, we sipped on our housemade mango lassi, which was surprisingly tart. I enjoyed it, but some at our table thought it wasn’t sweet enough. Delicious as it was, the yogurt-based beverage is meant to cool down your palate after a spicy, hot dish and I wasn’t sure if this one would do the job.
The curries arrived and the table “ooh”-ed before falling into a kind of happy silence. The vindaloo, native to the state of Goa in West India, had a vinegar marinade with potatoes and lamb, and I loved the sweet and sour duality. The dish is traditionally served without potatoes, but they were a welcome addition, even though we had plenty of starch. The rice had free refills, and the breadbasket was stacked with plain, garlic and cheese naan, the East Indian flat bread baked in a high-heat tandoor oven. The puffy, airy interior made it perfect for mopping up leftovers on our plate. The masala curry was thick and creamy with tomato-based sauce, and filled with chunks of tender chicken.
However, we were underwhelmed by the slightly dry chicken tikka. “Chicken’s not marinated enough,” complained my roommate. “It’s not flavored all the way through.” The channa masala was also not popular, but that was my fault because I didn’t know no one liked garbanzo beans, or any beans for that matter. “Why get beans when you can get meat?” demanded a particularly carnivorous friend. But everyone tore pieces of naan to dip into the curry sauce, which was declared delicious.
By the end of the meal, the restaurant was crowded and getting a little warm. We’d forgotten about desserts, which were now soggy from the heat. We each took a bite of mango pudding and melted cheesecake, but didn’t feel compelled to finish. The Pandey family eventually plans to incorporate authentic Nepalese desserts into the menu, which we all agreed would be a better idea.
It’s too early to say whether Chutney beats out the other Indian/Nepalese eateries like India Cafe or Himalayan Kitchen–it’s only been open for a couple of weeks. But most of the entrees were solid hits and the Pandeys are eager to make a good first impression with their excellent service. Once they work out the new restaurant hiccoughs, I can’t wait to come back and see Team Chutney gunning for the gold.