Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hut-K Chaats

Hut-K Chaats
3022 Packard Road, Ann Arbor, MI, 48018
QISA(4, 4, 3.5, 3), $5-7, Vegetarian (Vegan-friendly)

When a restaurant appeals to my inner food science geek, my inner nutritionist, my adventurer, my India-phile, my gourmet, and my underdog all at once, it has no choice but to become an instant favorite. Hut-K Chaats is clearly a labor of love, and you desperately want to see it succeed.

Hut-K Chaats was started in 2011 by Mahaveer Swaroop Bhojani, a PhD and former research investigator in the department of radiation oncology, dentistry, and anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Bhojani believes strongly in the link between food quality, nutrition, and disease, and he put his money where his mouth is (so to speak) by starting a restaurant that marries flavor and pleasure with nutrition and health. Hut-K means “different” or “not mainstream” and Chaats are Indian street foods known for blending multiple flavors in a single bite.

Although much of Dr. Bhojani’s philosophy can be found on the restaurant Website, the proprietor is more than happy to talk your ear off about the nutritional impact of sprouted grains, the fresh ingredients in his creations, and the flavors of Indian street food that are foreign to most Western palates.

In fact, what appealed to me the most was the explosion of new, exotic, and sometimes incongruous flavors. I know my way around mainstream Indian cuisine better than most Midwesterners, but I found myself in uncharted territory. My standard curries, masalas, panirs, and dosas were replaced by chaats, puris, whole grain rotis, and flatbread wraps. I was off the map and loving it.

I ordered the Shanu Chaat after Dr. Bhojani explained to me how the dish beat out five other signature food cart dishes at a cooking contest sponsored by French cookware manufacturer Le Creuset. I mean, how could I not try the dish that triumphed over the vegan stew from The Lunch Room and the truffled macaroni and cheese from Humble Hogs? This generously portioned meal contained spiced crushed chickpeas rolled in colocasia leaves, baked multigrain papdi, potatoes, peas, chickpeas, and a Hut-K special sauce that was a mix of sweet, sour, and savory. The dish itself was beautifully rendered in colorful concentric circles on the plate, creating a feast for all five senses.

The Shanu Chaat wiped me out, but I was so curious about the Back 2 Roots flatbread, that I ordered a portion to go. Later that night, holed up by myself in my hotel room, I discovered a new blend of flavor and texture. The Back 2 Roots is less a traditional Indian flatbread and more a bland chewy grain patty. However, complemented with red chutney sauce (almonds, walnuts, red pepper, carrots) and green chutney sauce (peanuts, coconut, mint, and cilantro), the mix of nine ancient whole grains and seeds plus four “newer” grains becomes a very satisfying meal.

To be sure, like any restaurant that publishes its philosophy on its Website, Hut-K Chaats suffers from a certain amount of pretention. The restaurant is not about the food, it's about YOUR health, OUR environment, MY culture (emphasis mine). Bhojani even coins the word nutrilicious, which sounds like the pet project of a Madison Avenue intern. However, you forgive all that because the food is great and the proprietors are committed to your wellbeing. If my mother ever made Aanokhi Pani Puri, I'm sure it would have tasted just like this.