Chef Charles Mani never cooked food from his home country of India until he moved to New York. Today, he’s working to revolutionize the way Indian cuisine is prepared and served at his Denver-area restaurant, Urban Village Grill.
“If you go to 10 different Indian restaurants, the food will taste 10 different, but the names are all the same and people pay the same price,” said Mani, a classically trained chef who studied at the SRM Institute of Hotel. Management in Chennai, the city where he comes from. “I want to bring standardization so people can eat the same thing in New York as they do in Denver.”
The goal, Mani said, is to grow the brand and create a model of Indian cuisine for the American palate. It’s not what his grandmother cooked, he says. Its cuisine has influences from all over India and other parts of the world.
“I wanted to get into Indian food making and translate what I learned into that food,” Mani said. “I didn’t want to do the stereotypes of Indian food. I wanted to bring more excitement to Indian food, and that’s how I decided to combine different styles.”
One of the ways Mani sees creating a more standardized Indian food menu is by getting rid of the mild, medium or spicy choices often offered in Indian restaurants. Indian spices can take nearly an hour to cook to extract flavors as well as heat. If you just put them in the dish based on how spicy the eaters want the food to be, they miss out on the complexity of the ingredients.
But for customers who want their food to be particularly incendiary, Mani has developed its own hot sauce to use.
It also added programs not often found in Indian restaurants. For example, customers can cook their own meat on grills built into the outdoor tables. A feature starting at $12 for each marinated protein and $10 for each vegetable.
“During COVID, everyone was grilling, and I didn’t want to destroy the happiness they had created [around the event]”, he said. “Also, not many people have the chance to cook their own Indian food.”
Additionally, Mani wanted to bring Indian flavors to the grill, relying on Japanese and Korean barbecue joints. He researched to see if any other Indian restaurants offered do-it-yourself grills, but discovered no one had started it.
“I always want to create something that is not done in the [traditional] Indian restaurants,” he added.
Urban Village Grill also offers a tasting menu: For $49 per person, diners can get the tasting menu, a feast of boneless tandoori chicken, kale moong dal chaat (an Indian snack made from curried lentils and kale), Indian flatbread naan, raita (a refreshing yogurt sauce often made with mint), spiced lamb with Italian pesto, gulab jamun (fried dumplings with green cardamom), and more.
The restaurant also offers a coconut curry with a thick, succulent sauce that stands on its own. Then there’s the “Not Your Grandma” section of the menu, with butter chicken, shrimp, or paneer with fenugreek sauce. Dinner costs between $18 and $25 for entrees, and entrees such as the classic mulligatawny soup (a thin meat and lentil soup) and vegetable samosas cost between $6 and $14.
Mani left India in 2005 and moved to New York. There he worked as a chef at Indian restaurants Babu Ji and Badshah, although his first job as executive chef was at a Mexican restaurant. He came to Denver in 2018 on a whim after falling in love with the state while visiting. Urban Village Grill opened in 2021, after the owners met Mani at another restaurant, now closed, where he opened up about the fickleness of his meal.
“I went with an American friend of mine. She ordered the hottest, they gave her mild, and I ordered mild, and they gave me hot,” he said. “They told me they didn’t think she ate it that spicy, and most Indian restaurants make assumptions like that about what they think the person is eating.”
He convinced them that Indian cuisine did not have to follow a stereotype, either on the customer side or on the restaurant side. Indian food also doesn’t have to be heavy or oily, he said.
Mani has also taken different approaches to creating Indian classics. He said that for many traditional dishes in the kitchen, ingredients are added to oil over a direct heat source or inside a pressure cooker. He said he buries the flavors of meat and vegetables.
Instead, Mani incorporated the French method of double boiling to cook his food more gently. It’s a more time-consuming process, but the result is a richer flavor, he said.
It’s not just Indian food that Mani looks at differently, he also wants to support culinary students by hiring them first and foremost. For his own upbringing, Mani said his mother pawned her wedding ring to help pay, and he still struggled to find work.
“I wanted to work closely with the students to help them achieve their dreams, faster than me,” the chef said. “I want to give opportunities and I believe in the next generation, and that people have better ideas than me and can contribute their skills and ideas.”
While only one Urban Village Grill currently exists, in Lone Tree, Colorado, Mani said he plans to expand the concept beyond Colorado. In a way, having his restaurant in the Park Meadows Mall, the region’s largest mall, highlights the type of clientele he wants to attract: the average American looking for good Indian food healthy. No surprises, just a tasty meal they’ll remember, then give them the opportunity to have the same experience somewhere else one day.