Restaurant Review: Satya Chai Lounge, Karangahape Rd
Jesse Mulligan finds his new local in the form of Satya Chai Lounge
Cuisine: Indian street food
Phone: 09 377 0007
Address: 271 K Rd
Drinks: Fully licensed
Bookings: Not accepted
From the menu: Crispy prawns $18, Lamb nukkad $15, Curryflower $14, Onion bhaji $13, Aloo faakers $16, Kurryaage chicken $15.
Score: 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.
I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a restaurant then went back the following week with my own money just for the pleasure of it, but Satya Chai Lounge is so good I couldn’t stay away.
The food is the sort of delicious that makes you disappointed when you become too full to keep eating. Then you go home and lie awake in bed, thinking about the strong, spiced drink they made you while you read through the menu, and the next day at work you tell everybody you run into that they have to go and eat there as soon as possible.
And thank God for this restaurant really, because it’s been a pretty poor year of eating by my usual standards. Aside from the almost-theres and give-them-times chronicled in these pages I’ve been eating out more often between review dinners and having a fairly average time of it — enduring sullen service, mediocre meat and wish-washy cocktails, paying over the odds at established restaurants that should know better.
Meanwhile many of the new places seem as though their hearts aren’t really in it — unexciting rehydrations of a proven formula, rather than something exhilarating and original.
But this place on Karangahape Rd is the eatery I’ve been waiting for. It’s a spinoff of the Satya franchise, operated by the owners’ charismatic son, Sammy, who brings a new generational energy to the city’s legendary Indian restaurant chain.
Auckland has just a handful of restaurants where the experience inside is indivisible from the personality of the owner. Monzu, Coco’s Cantina … wow, there must be others but I’m struggling to think of them. Satya Chai Lounge is another to add to the list — it’s really Sammy’s place, not only because he’s always there and has made all the important decisions about the way things will run, but because he is warm and omnipresent enough that you could be at his house.
As at the best fine dining restaurants you can ask him about any aspect of the food and drink and he will give you a long, comprehensive answer that makes you pleased you showed an interest.
What is this yoghurt? “It’s our house yoghurt, would you like to take home a starter?” What’s different about this negroni? “We make our own bitters using spices from our Chai mix.”
What is that stuff up there? “We buy unwanted coffee sacks to line the ceiling with and the money we pay is given to charity.”
And then the food is blisteringly good too. Yes, it is almost all deep fried, but once you have your head around that you can start enjoying yourself. Sammy’s dad wasn’t happy with the freshness of New Zealand spices so he started importing them himself. Could I close my eyes and guarantee that I could tell a month-old cumin seed from a six-month-old one? Probably not, but the quality of ingredients does really lift the standard of the food — you couldn’t possibly make that old observation about it all tasting the same here.
Each dish has a markedly distinctive flavour, before you’ve even got to the variety of textures and temperatures.
Glug glug, munch munch. I heard they spent just $5000 doing the place up but they’ve created one of the nicest places in Auckland to have a drink and a nosh. Nothing is flash but it’s all cosy, and the food comes fast, on tapas plates, with only chopsticks to serve with, so everyone shares and nobody can try to heap it on to their own plate.
What should you order? It’s all good. Sammy uses a code where he puts puns into the names of his favourite dishes so start with his curryflower (just tender, battered and heavily spiced), kurryage chicken (like shredded KFC served in a Goan back alley) and (is this a pun or not?) aloo faakers: Indian spiced chicken hash browns.
If you’re still up for more, order the unbelievably good spicy tempura prawns and the six-hour lamb leg which was tender and wonderful and a good break from hot oil. The onion bhaji was deconstructed strands of onion battered in a spice mix that tasted like Burger Rings then served in a generous heap. What a business model — charging $13 for what must be barely more than one onion and still leaving customers feeling they’ve got a bargain!
So, if everything was this brilliant, why only 16/20?
Because I’ll be heading to eat the new Indian menu at Sidart someday soon and it seems unfair to Sid Sahrawat, one of the greatest Indian chefs in the world, to rank a cheap K Rd street food bar with the same sort of numbers, no matter how good it is.
Put it this way, Satya Chai Lounge is as perfect as it can possibly be, it’s what 2018 needs, and though it’s possibly not proper for a restaurant critic to have a “local”, I’m already planning the rest of my year to spend as much time eating here as possible.