Ghee Indian Kitchen: A Restaurant is Born and Everyone's Cheering
New restaurants open nearly every day of the year, with varying degrees of fanfare. But in the case of Ghee Indian Kitchen, it feels like all of South Florida has been watching the progress and rooting for chef/owner Niven Patel's restaurant, now open at Downtown Dadeland.
It was a little over a year ago that Niven, then chef de cuisine at Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, announced he was leaving to open his own place in Kendall. Even before sharing his news, Patel had been busy with extracurricular cooking for colleagues and friends, using what he grew in his Homestead backyard – Rancho Patel – lovingly tended by him and his family, including his wife Shivani, parents and in-laws. In addition to tomatoes, okra, greens, herbs and well-known vegetables, Patel grows produce used in Indian dishes: long green eggplants, chile peppers, turmeric, chickpeas, tindora and purple yams, to name just a few. After announcing his plans, he hosted pop-ups, did Saturday Indian snack sales at Downtown Dadeland, cooked in numerous collaborations with Miami chefs and appeared at events like Vizcaya's Dinner for Farmers, where his smoked carrot pani puri was talked about long after the event was over. In February, chef Patel's farm-to-dinner evening for the Cobaya Dining Club set a record for the number of requests.
Tracking the Journey on Social Media
Followers of Patel on Instagram – @ChefNiven – watched in real time as he and his family prepared for the upcoming restaurant: picking out kumquat seeds to prepare the small citrus fruits for pickling, stitching up calico aprons. Some showed the laborious method to make the traditional Gujarati dish khichu, an Indian snack. Rice flour, Thai chile, tapioca, garlic, cumin are steamed, then ground in a meat grinder to make a pliable dough, flattened by hand into thin disks and set out in the sun to dry – a three-day process. From there, they are roasted or fried. Other dishes tested out include:
• Multigrain naan, made with farro, flax, millet, sunflower, and plenty of ghee, a recipe developed "after hundreds of attempts"
• Green mango pickles, made after a windstorm blew young fruits off the trees
• Khandvi or paturi, a rolled-up snack made with chickpea flour, yogurt, chile, ginger and topped with curry leaves and other spices
Images captured the process of stockpiling for the future: The restaurant's namesake ghee – clarified grassfed butter – in jars labeled with infusions: curry leaf and turmeric, vanilla and chai spices. Grinding spices using a 150-year-old stone handed down through generations. And putting up a bumper crop of tomatoes at the peak of the season, when the team spent three days peeling and canning tomatoes pickled, preserved, pureed, a thousand pounds for the cupboard.
While plans were in the works for building out the restaurant, chef Niven kept up a dizzying array of events, including a trip to the Cayman Islands and to New York, where he was named a Rising Star by StarChefs. He worked at Zahav in Philadelphia, the award-winning Israeli-Mediterranean restaurant of chef/owner Mike Solomonov. He brought his dishes to pop-ups and collaborations at Loba Miami, his Downtown Dadeland neighbor Barley, Boxelder Miami during Art Basel, Aaron Brooks' Edge Miami at the Four Seasons, Pinch Kitchen, PIG 7, and even held Rancho Patel Pizzeria at Harry's.
The planned December opening didn't happen. Nor did January, February, March or April. "I underestimated how hard the process would be," says Patel. Some of the biggest reasons for delays involved design of the new space and the back-and-forth with plans, which took two months longer than expected. "I had no idea on engineering and archiecture. We naïvely thought they would do it right the first time," he says. The air conditioning, for example, was insufficient for the open design of the restaurant. "Back to the drawing board," he says. The good thing is that now Patel better understands this aspect of the restaurant – "I know every nook and cranny, inside and out. For the future, it's invaluable."
In the meantime, via social media, followers got peeks at the interior design as a work in progress. The container filled with wooden tables and chairs arrived. Miami artist Matthew Ryan Herget, now in Los Angeles, painted an exuberant massive mural of flowers surrounding an elephant. All those jars of preserves, plus spices and grains, were stacked on the shelves of one of the walls. Homey, family touches – bangles, figurines and carved mirrors, were arranged and re-arranged on the shelves.
Ready, Set, Go
Finally, the first week of May, Niven got final permits needed to open. Everyone hustled into action. Hiring good staff – perhaps one of the biggest problems for restaurateurs – was not an issue for Patel, who is well known and respected in South Florida's chef community. "I didn’t even have to put an ad out for help. Everyone wants to be here – it makes it easier to educate them."
Ghee's opening menu featured a combination of Indian dishes familiar to many Americans – chicken and lamb shank biryani, chicken tikka masala, lamb kofta, garlic naan – and regional Indian specialties that Niven figured were making an appearance for the first time in any Indian restaurant in the U.S. These include green millet, a polenta-like grain served with yogurt, cilantro and sev, crunchy chickpea noodles; idli (steamed rice, coconut and dal) and dhokla (steamed semolina). Snack items like backyard pakora, samosas and pani puri, the pop-in-your-mouth snacks filled with roasted beets and a pop of "green juice" incorporate local veggies with Indian flavors.
The menu showcases vegetables, many from Rancho Patel, such as eggplant with peas and tomato, crispy cauliflower and charred brussels sprouts with dates and bacon. Some dishes are not purely Indian, rather are compatible inventions, says Patel, like the grouper collar with chickpeas and preserved lemon "because I love the collar, and it's grouper season." The grain naan is on the menu, along with aged cheddar naan with Thai chiles. On the dessert menu: tart yogurt custard, black cardamom kulfi, sticky date cake, and meethay, an assortment of traditional sweets.
"Now that we're open, I'm back to the state of mind where I want to be – enjoying food, feeding people, staff happy. It fuels me to get up at 5am," says Patel. "I am pleasantly surprised how people are reacting."
To chef Niven's fans who have been following his progress, then tasting these dishes carefully nurtured from garden to plate, they're already sold. And despite its exotic menu, Ghee Indian Kitchen feels the most authentic local restaurant in town.
Ghee Indian Kitchen
8965 SW 72 Pl., Miami 33156
Open for dinner Tues.–Sat. 5–10pm
Sunday brunch 11–3
Appetizers and vegetables are $8-11, curries $13-18 and grilled dishes are $11-19. A family-style tasting menu, $55 per person, is a good way to experience different tastes.