Tucked neatly next to the familiar college town staple “Mellow Mushroom” on Franklin Street is “Cholanad,” a gem of a South Indian restaurant that’s been faithfully proving Chapel Hill with slightly upscale Indian fare for six years and counting.
“Franklin Street has a large walking crowd,” said Mathivanan Pothiappan, “Mathi” for short, the owner and manager of Cholanad. “When you open this restaurant somewhere else, even if you have a quality product, you don’t have a walk-in customers. The location is very important for people to come in and taste something different.”
Walks-ins certainly are welcome, and even encouraged. Cholanad is meant to feel familiar and inviting. White linen tablecloths drape over tables and spots of greenery in the form of potted plants and trees brightens up the atmosphere while providing a sense of earthy connection, while light from wall-to-wall windows spills into the room from outside.
“I’m most proud of the culture here,” said Pothiappan. “It’s very family-oriented and friendly, and one of my goals was to be more of a team rather than playing individual roles. Only the finished product comes to your table, and that product will be high-quality if it’s being made happily.”
On a street where restaurants come and go, and the coveted corner store at Franklin and Columbia seemingly can’t stay in business, six years serving upper-crust cuisine on Franklin Street as an independent restaurant is quite the achievement.
“This restaurant, our goal is to provide South Indian food in a world class environment with a nice ambiance,” said Pothiappan. “To try and be authentic as much as possible, and we are authentic. The way you eat when you’re back to India, we try to be close to that taste. We don’t customize or Americanize the food.”
It’s that lack of pandering that makes Cholanad so special. It’s as close to Indian home cooking as any Chapel Hill resident can get, in terms of both food and atmosphere.
“You can see Southern Indian cuisine it’s not too spicy, but it has more flavorful spices,” said Chandrakumar Mani, who describes his role at Cholanad as “mediator between the customers and the kitchen.” “We use cardamom, cinnamon, chili powder, turmeric, coriander … We don’t want to put more cream, more sweet, in the food. We want to have the original food itself. If it’s spicy, it’s spicy.”
Guests at Cholanad will always find something palatable on the menu, no matter their tastes, diet or preferences. Vegetarian options aplenty, along with dishes easily customized to suit a gluten or carbohydrate-free lifestyle, make Cholanad an option for most everyone.
The signature “Big Bad Tiger,” a table-sized crispy dosa (a crepe-type dish, made from rice and lentils) filled with lamb and chicken, is a fun favorite that can feed an entire family. Spice-crusted scallops, skewered with roasted peppers and onions, make wonderful use of ginger, garlic, turmeric and garam masala. The centerpiece is, of course, the large and tender scallops themselves. The tandoor in the kitchen is also always working overtime to produce come of the best chicken tikka (Cholanad’s most popular dish) and lamb chops around.
“There’s a thing said, Americans don’t like spicy,” said Pothiappan. “People always get ‘spicy’ confused with chili, and chili isn’t the only spice. We have a bunch of spices … You can have these things, these spices, and it be flavorful with or without being ‘spicy.’ Once you get it into your tastebuds, you’re going to keep coming back.”