Restaurateur Gopinath (Gopi) Nair has opened a to-go spot on Orange Street that he believes can do for Indian what Subway did for subs and Chipotle did for Mexican food: make the dishes fast, cheap, and easy to eat on the run.
“There’s nothing like this style of presentation for Indian food yet,” said Gopi. “People have an idea about the typical Indian meal—that you go, eat for two hours, and then you have to sit on a couch and digest, and not go back for two weeks.”
This is far from the case at “fast-casual” Tikkaway, Gopi’s new spot. The food is prepared quickly, behind only glass, in a now familiar assembly-line format. The customer controls whether the dish will be light or heavy, mild or spicy, by choosing among ingredients laid out buffet-style.
Following a menu with both illustrations and English translations of Indian words, customers first select a roti wrap, a rice bowl, or a salad bowl to contain their meal. Roti is a flat Indian bread that Gopi said is more popular in Indian home-cooking than the air-filled naan that is popular in American sit-down Indian restaurants.
One then layers on a choice of chicken, vegetables, lamb, aloo (potatoes), chana (chickpeas), or panir (chewy squares of Indian cottage cheese), and tops with a choice of sauces and chutneys at no additional cost. (Click on the video to see Gopi in action.)
Gopi invented his own vegan sauce after seeing high demand for the option at other eateries. He also specifies which dishes are gluten-free and vegetarian. Prices range from $5.95 to $6.75, with 99-cent papads—triangle-shaped, dough pastries with a variety of fillings—and $1.45 samosas rounding out the menu.
To drink, Gopi offers rich mango lassis and iced or hot chais, though fans of chai drinks at Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks won’t recognize Tikkaway’s take on the beverage. Gopi leaves out artificial flavors, sweetenings, milk and cream. “A ‘chai tea latte’ is a joke,” he said. “It’s redundant, but it makes the drink recognizable. ‘Chai’ already means tea. ‘Latte’ is added to make people think of milk. It’s a marketing trick.”
Gopi says he’s considering selling beer or wine, but for now he’s focusing on fine-tuning his main product and doesn’t want to distract from the food.
Before deciding to stake his savings on opening Tikkaway (“I don’t have a Plan B”), Gopi was a managing partner at Coromandel Cuisine, where he worked for 18 years, most recently at the South Norwalk location. Looking to bring his sophisticated understanding of Indian food to more people later in his career, he began organizing private dinners. He would prepare complex dishes and pair them with wine and beer.
“I was teaching ‘Indian 601.’ I should have been doing ‘Indian 101,’” he said. Now he’s taking his expertise to the streets, hoping to expose the lunching masses to traditional south Asian dishes in an accessible way and build the layperson’s vocabulary from the ground up. He chose to open in New Haven because of the open-mindedness and diversity of its population, he said, citing the students and young professionals in the neighborhood.
Designed by J. B. Ducruet, the left wall of Tikkaway is collaged with shapes of various colors and textures, including gold leaf, clustering mostly towards the back of the room, in the style of Miró or late-life Matisse. “It acts as a heuristic, visually drawing you in,” said Gopi, who studied behavioral science in addition to the culinary arts.
To illustrate both his all-in mentality, in honor of ‘Plan A,’ and to emphasize how he’s spreading the “ABC"s of Indian food, Gopi has the first letter of the alphabets of the top languages spoken in India carved into his serving area, including Bengali (and Asamese, which uses the same script), Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada (and Telugu), Malayalam, and Oriya. The list would have included Tamil and Punjabi lettering as well, but the carver accidentally left them out as he was copying from stencils Gopi supplied. “He didn’t know—it could have been Korean to him,” Gopi joked, good-naturedly.
“We’ve been trying to teach you in our language. What we should be doing is teaching you in your language,” he said in explanation of Tikkaway’s new approach. “When I teach you about Indian food in your language, you learn more.” In America it seems the most universal language may be the language of fast food.