It may be daylight outside, but inside the dimly lit, cosy confines of Satya Chai Lounge on Auckland’s Karangahape Road it could be any time of the day or night. Before owner Sammy Akuthota took over the premises from his parents nine months ago this was the location of one of the family’s five popular Satya restaurants, known for deliciously authentic South Indian cuisine.
Gone are the brightly coloured sari fabrics that previously draped from the ceiling and over chairs, replaced with a casual, rustic aesthetic with richly patterned rugs, long wooden bench tables and seats made from crates topped with coffee-sack cushions. The room is bathed in the glow from hanging lamps and candle light.
With no signage, and what was a street-facing window now obscured by a wooden slat wall, pushing past a thick curtain to enter from a busy road creates a sense of discovery, like walking into an off-radar, back-street or alleyway bar found in Melbourne or Venice.
The mystery is intentional. “When you’re in here it feels like you’re not in Auckland,” says Sammy. “I want people to feel transported by the flavours and the whole experience. I want them to think it looks like an odd place that’s under construction until they go through the door. I think that’s really interesting.”
Sammy has transformed the interior in keeping with his first Chai Lounge, started almost by accident two years ago in a space behind the Sandringham Satya restaurant. Created as a pop-up, it quickly found a loyal following with an extensive range of craft beer (more than 160 different kinds) that customers could select from the fridge themselves, and flavoursome Indian street-style snacks.
“I wanted it to feel like a rustic shack you’ll find on the side of the road in India and where you get the most glorious food, outside of restaurants,” says Sammy. He was also influenced by that iconic style, familiar to Kiwis, of “spending time with friends at their baches. I wanted that low-key feeling.”
Sammy has refined the Chai Lounge offering at K Road, riffing off what made the first a success but presenting it in a more considered way. There’s a greater focus on the food: “I’ve done my best to keep the essence of what we have at Sandringham, but it’s definitely more formal,” he says. “It’s primarily a restaurant with a kick-ass drinks list rather than the other way around.”
While it’s called a Chai Lounge, and there is fragrant masala chai on offer, it’s the fanciful take on street food snacks found across India that is the drawcard, served alongside a carefully selected beer and cocktail list.
“It’s what I remember the street food to be,” says Sammy of the menu. “I work with the chefs to create how I want to eat it, and we don’t mellow it out for the Kiwi palate.”
A dish that was a must-have on the list is Dahi Puri – crisp chickpea crackers topped with potato, yoghurt, tamarind sauce and spices – a favourite with customers at all of the Satya restaurants. “I cannot get away from having that on the menu,” laughs Sammy. “They’re so popular.”
Alongside Onion Bhaji and Masala Fries (shoestring fries laced with spices) are unexpected additions that reflect the cultural diversity of India. Vege Dumpling Manchurian – twice-fried moreish morsels made from potato, ginger and onion – are evidence of the Chinese food vendors found “on just about every street corner”. The Indian-spiced Japanese-style chicken is a favourite of Sammy’s. “I love karaage, so we call ours Kurryaage,” he laughs.
There’s no self-serve beer fridge at the K Road venue, and while Sammy has an extensive collection on hand, he keeps the beer list tightly curated. As well as tap, bottles and cans from the likes of Garage Project, Behemouth, McLeod and Yeastie Boys, he includes lesser-known breweries such as local outfit, Sparks. There’s also a $40 can of VB for anyone determined to avoid a craft beer experience.
Sammy prefers to help customers find something he thinks they’ll enjoy or give them the opportunity to discover something unexpected. “I don’t put everything on the beer list,” he says. “I try to understand my guests and find out what they’re really after. It’s fun doing that with people that really get it.” For the aficionados there are “rare collection” local and imported special releases, often with only a few bottles allocated to New Zealand distributors, that Sammy has snapped up.
While matching beer and Indian food in general is a “no-brainer; it just works so well,” the cocktail list is not to be overlooked. Recipes are created in collaboration with mixologist Robert Giampaolo. Together they “give an Indian twist to classics”. Popular cocktails include an infused Spiced Negroni and a Chai Hard made from masala chai blended rum, made hot or iced cold depending on the season.
Sammy’s plans for the rest of the year include expanding into the space next door to set up a dedicated cocktail bar and continuing a series of dinner events in collaboration with local brewers to showcase their ranges.
While word is still getting out about this hidden gem, that’s how he prefers it; in fact, it’s part of his plan.
“The best thing about street food across the world is that you need a local to tell you where it is. In India, it’s just in carts; you don’t know where they’re going to be unless you’re a local and you know their pattern. I wanted to create a place that a person walking up and down K Road could just walk straight by. I’m in no rush. I want it to be a natural growth and slowly build it over time for people who love it. That’s why I like being hidden.”
Satya Chai Lounge,
271 Karangahape Road,
Monday – Thursday: 11:30am–2:30pm, 5:30–10pm
Friday: 11:30am–2:30pm, 5:30–10pm
Saturday: 11:30am–2:30pm, 5:30–10pm