Charlie Mani insists what he cooks is not Indian food—at least not anything like what Americans expect of Indian food. The kitchen he runs at Urban Village, serves, for lack of a better term, Indian dishes. Mani's description of his own cuisine differs from the genre of food they serve.
Mani, who went to culinary school in his home city of Chennai in South India, and worked at some of the top Indian restaurants in New York City until recently, said the way he does cooking is unlike anybody else.
“My way of cooking is always a surprise,” Mani said. “I want to do something not usual.”
Mani, of Lone Tree, strives to break out of the box Americans typically know as Indian food—tandoori chicken, curry, naan bread. His dishes start with Indian specialties he and adds his own flair to it. Some of the staples are still there. The short menu has things like naan, tandoori chicken and coconut curry, but Mani's take on dishes like a kale moong dal chaat, breaded cauliflower or golgappa is where his creative influence can be tasted.
Mani, a personable yet stubborn creator, does not concede the costumer is always right. Mani relies on his education and his inner artistic voice to continually raise his own bar. He describes his affection for cooking in multiple forms — to him cooking is his wife, the restaurant is his home and the customers are his friends, family and guests. Mani personally attends to each table. He believes giving the back of the house a face is something the industry is missing.
“When it comes to cooking, I don't listen to anyone,” Mani said. “Everybody screwed up enough of my industry. There's enough screwing up.
As a result, the restaurant already has a reliable base of regulars who make complicated orders without looking at a menu.
Though his influences come from his home palate, Mani says he doesn't want to be identified as an Indian chef. It can pigeonhole him as a creator and create certain expectations of himself.
“I never prepared 'Indian' food in my life before coming to America,” Mani said. “I grew up cooking everything totally different. When I moved here, my name is Charles so on my resume they assume I'm a white boy, but when I go there they say, 'Sorry, we don't serve Indian food.' If I wanted to cook Indian food, I might have stayed in India.”
Urban Village has been open since October in Lone Tree's entertainment district. The restaurant has received acclaim from local food critics for its unique take on Indian food.
The restaurant started out as a dream. Ramesh Madakasira wanted to bring a high-end Indian restaurant to the Denver area. Madakasira and his partner Gopinath Desam, both from Lone Tree, are both software engineers by trade. Mani moved to Lone Tree last year. Urban Village is their first restaurant venture.
“I take it as a challenge,” Madakasira said. “If there's a challenge, there's an opportunity with it as well.”
Madakasira said they hope to bring Urban Village to downtown Denver and throughout the metro region. Lone Tree was a good place to start, he said.
“For me, it doesn't give me stress ever because I like it,” Madakasira said.
To Mani, he's the opposite.
“The stress is what keeps me coming back,” he said.
Mani said he can't get enough of cooking.
“For me, that stress is the one thing that makes me wake up and come again and again and do what I do.”
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