Pirata Group’s wave after wave of new openings earlier this summer — from modern Chinese eatery Madame Ching to Peruvian-Chinese dumpling house Chifa and a TST branch of Pici — seems to have finally come to a brief respite following the arrival of its latest venture, Chaiwala. Located on Wyndham Street in the former labyrinth that was Spanish tapas joint Zafran, Chaiwala has taken up fort as Central’s new go-to for modern Indian fare.
The basement venue is accessed via a modish bright red door set against a vibrant blue-brick wall, with an air of mysteriousness and whimsy in equal measure shrouding the entrance. Head downstairs and you’ll step through Hugger Mugger — a stylish British Salon dressed in 70s British racing green leather and walls framed with photos of the UK’s most eclectic stars — before reaching the cavernous rooms that make up Chaiwala.
Inspired by the colours and rhythms of the bustling streets of India, Chaiwala itself is divided into three spaces: The Chai Bar, fulfilling the restaurant’s namesake as the chai wallah, or streetside chai stand; the Kitchen, where diners can watch chefs at work at the tandoor ovens behind the open kitchen; and the Dining Room, featuring a long wooden table which cleverly displays a selection of nostalgic knick-knacks encased under the glass-topped compartments. Along the walls, rustic wooden door frames add a touch of retro décor and humour (Scribbled on one door: “Exit only in an emergency, or in the event of bad dates & poor conversation”).
Food & Drink
Separated into six sections, the menu traces Indian geography, spreading from Northern to Southern cuisine; and includes a mix of familiar crowd pleasers and lesser known dishes. Dishes are also Muslim-friendly, with all meat certified Halal. Starting off with the Pani Puri with Jal-Jeera (HK$90) is a wise move: a common street snack all across India, these crispy balls are filled with an assortment of toppings and drizzled with a “jal-jeera” spice water, whetting the appetite with the sweet tang of cumin, tamarind and chickpeas. Typically served vegetarian, you can also opt for it to come with chicken tikka instead.
Around the same time as the chaat, your cocktail should arrive as well, likely bearing a bit of theatrics: My Magic Lamp (HK$120) punch comes presented in a caged Aladdin’s lamp, while another fellow diner’s Punjab Cadillac Colada (HK$120) arrives in a tall elegant vase. Signature drinks such as these tend to be on the sweet and colourful side and aren’t markedly strong — perhaps all for the best, especially if you’ll be drinking lots to offset the spicy food. The Magic Lamp is mostly reminiscent of a thin tropical smoothie, made with butter-washed Plantation 3 Stars rum, banana, citrus mix, dill, allspice and sage. The Punjab Cadillac Colada is a twist on a piña colada with saffron-infused Diplomatico Planas, lime juice, amontillado sherry, chai syrup, coconut and nutmeg.
Paying homage to British influence, there’s also a great selection of gin & tonics such as the Electonic (HK$130), which pairs pea flower-inflused Gin Mare with Imperdibile superior tonic. The drinks menu is rounded out by a lengthy wine list available by bottle and by the glass.
As is with many of Pirata Group’s eateries, the dishes are made to be shared. Straight from the tandoor oven, the Wagyu Seekh Kebab (HK$260) arrives to our table first: two spiced, aromatic sausages of minced beef, paired with accoutrements such as cucumber yoghurt, tamarind and chutney and meant to be wrapped between fluffy naan. The beef is flavourful and nicely balanced with a subtle char and sweetness from peppers and onions — but perhaps slightly over-cooked, as is often the fate of minced meat kebabs. The naan could have fared better if served hot, instead of the lukewarm pieces that ended up on our plates. The Tandoori Chicken (HK$240) however, boasts all the classic, mouthwatering flavours of the dish, and is tender and juicy to boot — no complaints from us there.
The Lobster Nerulli (HK$390) is stunningly presented — the charred vermillion shell opening up to reveal bite-sized chunks of meat, lavished with a sweet-spicy gravy (almost like a South Indian take on lobster bisque). The accompanying rice also has hidden chunks of lobster claw, but the meat here feels bland in comparison to the star of the dish.
We move on to the Kerala Fish Curry (HK$150), a delicious, albeit spicy, coconut-laden dish, where the heat pervades your tastebuds long after each bite. We enjoy alternating between bites of silky, flaky sea bass and mopping up the sauce with the addictive saffron and coconut naan, with the sweetness of the coconut helping to offset the spice. We also tear into a decadent black truffle naan — sure to be snapped up by truffle enthusiasts in a jiffy.
Butter chicken, or chicken makhani, sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap for being the spice intolerant’s curry, but its status as a guilty pleasure reaches new heights with the Paneer Lasagna Makhni (HK$190), a vegetarian riff on the dish which marries slightly salty grilled paneer with the silky goodness of the buttery tomato gravy. Layered with aubergine and green peas, I wouldn’t exactly call this a lasagna — it lacks the sinful meltiness required — but it ticks all the boxes for a satisfying winter warmer.
As for desserts, Chaiwala’s sweets truly deliver, with offerings inspired by both traditional and modern recipes. The gulab jamun (South Asian Spice, HK$90) is not your average sticky affair, with the deep fried milk balls lending a nice crispness with a warm, fluffy and satisfying centre. Topped with mint syrup and caramelised pistachio, and made to be dipped in a very tart and light yogurt, the heaviness of the old-fashioned dessert is wonderfully balanced. The Bollywood Style (HK$100) is a gorgeously bright (and Boomerang-able) dessert pairing cardamom panna cotta with mango, garnished with edible flowers. Finally, the New Delhi Delight (HK$120) is a delightful and dreamy affair, with spoonfuls of dark chocolate spiced mousse on top of a nougatine and chocolate cookie base, sprinkled with exploding pop rock candy. With your sweet tooth sated, you’ll want to end with a steamy cup of Masala chai: a steaming ginger- and spice-laden affair that’s sure to leave you warm and happy.
Pirata Group prides itself on well portioned sharing plates, a convivial atmosphere, creative cooking and reasonable prices — and you’ll get all of the above at Chaiwala, sure to be a hit with the after-work crowd in Central seeking a slightly more adventurous bite. For those who don’t want to be fussed with choosing dishes, you can opt for the Dabbawala menu (HK$480 per person), which offers a selection of signature dishes for the table for sharing.
The eclectic décor adds another dimension to the evening, with completely different vibes depending on which room you’re seated in. The noise level does get quite high, however, making it hard for intimate conversation unless you enjoy shouting across the table — which might make the chance of a bad date or poor conversation quite probable. But no matter what situation you find yourself in, a pleasantly surprising dessert will always save the day — and prevent you from ever needing that aforementioned emergency exit.
Opening Hours: Mondays to Sundays, 6pm–12am.
Recommended Dishes: Pani Puri with Jal-Jeera, Kerala Fish Curry, Saffron Coconut Naan, Paneer Lasagna Makhni, Magic Lamp, South Asian Spice, New Delhi Delight.
Price: HK$460-590 per person with drinks.
Noise Level: Medium to loud with music and chatter.
Service: Friendly, and attuned to diners’ needs.
Chaiwala, B/F, 43-55 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong
+852 2362 8988