Chandani opened the doors of its Victorian home in mid 2007, and has been a popular choice for tourists and locals ever since. In a town that is notoriously fickle with its patronage, Chandani – meaning ‘moonlight’ – has proved as consistently alluring as its namesake.
Owners Jagdish Vanzara and Dina de Bruyn are inspired, they say, by “the culinary extravaganza of the Grand Mugals… that golden era, when every meal was a feast”. From the chef to the crockery to the spices, everything has been imported from India. Coupled with Jagdish at the helm in the kitchen, authenticity is infused into everything.
In the Chandani kitchen most things are still done in the traditional way. Herbs are freshly ground each day, and yoghurt and cheese are made in cheesecloth, as they were when Jagdish started in the restaurant business at the tender age of seven.
Dining at Chandani is a sensory experience, which begins with welcoming rose petals strewn outside the entrance and ends with a traditional pan masala – a fragrant bouquet of tiny herbs and spices to freshen the breath.
Great care has been taken with the décor to recreate the atmosphere of exotic India: not the multi-coloured, glitzy Bollywood version, but rather an understated, elegant vision of muted tones, soft lighting, subtle scents and hand-picked antiques.
Dina greets us warmly and is a most gracious host. She flits between tables, carrying platters of food and gently advising diners on the best dishes to share. A South African by birth, she explains that the western palate is taken into consideration when designing the dishes, with the emphasis on the right combination of spices, so that the food is fragrant and not overwhelming.
Jagdish hails from the state of Gujarat on the north western coast of India, where ninety percent of the population is vegetarian. Hence Chandani is a wonderful haven for vegetarians. The extensive vegetable and vegan options are matched by a profusion of chicken, lamb, fish and seafood dishes. It even offers no less than 11 different types of Indian bread, including the interesting sounding Kabuli Naan, a cheese naan topped with fruit and nuts and coconut (R 25). Catching me mulling over the abundant choices, Dina asks – with a twinkle in her eye – whether I like Turkish delight. She brings me a ‘Bombay Crush’ – a pink, milky concoction in a tall glass. It tastes of roses and sherbet and ice cream and is so delicious, it could double up as a dessert.
Dina explains that the restaurant is ideally suited for bigger groups, so that friends can share and sample dishes. The house speciality is Brinjal Masala (R 75) – a typical rustic Indian dish – but also tempting is the Paneer Pashanda (R 95) in which the paneer is blended with dried fruit in an aromatic cashew nut curry. In the end I opted for the Paneer Bhurjee (R 80) – a mashed paneer fried with onions, peas and spices and Dal Maharaja (R 65) – whole black lentils and chickpeas simmered on charcoal overnight with tomatoes and spices, to create a rich, smoky sensation that was instantly addictive.
My heart was set on finishing the feast with a cup of comforting masala chai and kulfi (R 30) – a sweet desert similar to ice cream. However, the naan, dal and Bombay Crush had got the better of me and I had to admit defeat, amidst promises of “next time.”
The love and passion that Dina and Jagdish have for cooking and entertaining is the secret ingredient that makes every meal at Chandani a feast for the senses.
Samantha Reynolds is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on art and travel. More of her work can be found at goldendreams.me.