Last Tuesday night, 6114 Centre Ave. was bumpin’. Music filled the large, open space. People danced. Friendships were forged.
It wasn’t the grand opening of some trendy nightclub, but a training session for employees of Choolaah, a new restaurant serving fast-casual, Indian barbecue.
“We are in the business of creating joyful experiences,” co-founder Raji Sankar says. “We want to transform the quality of life of everyone we touch.”
Sankar and her business partner Randhir Sethi will open their doors and hearts on Friday, Jan. 26. at 11 a.m., when Choolaah makes its Pittsburgh debut. Along with its four sister locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, the East Liberty eatery serves fresh, healthy food in an environment that looks more like an art gallery than an eatery.
Surrounded by a whimsical mix of paintings, inspirational quotes and installation art — including a 65-foot stack of Indian cookbooks — sit four tandoors. The huge, clay, gas-fired ovens heat up to 600 degrees, giving meats a perfect char that locks in flavors and juices.
For centuries in India, friends have gathered around these cylindrical slow cookers to break bread, share blessings and carry on good conversations. Here in Pittsburgh, local visitors will inevitably talk about football because the tandoors are named for famous Steelers Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and Hines Ward.
The idea for Choolaah — which means “oven” — emerged in 2003.
Inspired by the success of casual ethnic restaurants such as Chipotle, Sankar and Sethi (self-proclaimed foodies who spent the late-90s building technology companies in Pittsburgh) wrote a business plan for a barbecue joint with Indian flare.
“Luckily, we had the good sense to not do anything with that business plan because we had no idea what we were doing and the market wasn’t quite ready for what we had in mind,” Sankar says with a laugh.
The pair regrouped and, in 2004, franchised Five Guys Burgers and Fries throughout Pittsburgh. The family-restaurant-turned-corporate-empire gave them a crash course in food service.
They tweaked their original business plan and headed to India to research recipes, sample street food and explore eateries ranging from mom-and-pop shops to fine dining establishments.
The flagship Choolaah opened in Cleveland in 2014 with aesthetics by James Nesbitt, a Pittsburgher who founded the brand design firm Wall-to-Wall Studios, and a menu boasting “smile-worthy ingredients.”
Customers, including those who are vegetarians, vegans, gluten-sensitive and daily-free, can choose from an array of options and, thanks to an open kitchen concept, actually watch their meals being prepared.
The company prides itself on serving the finest, humanely raised, antibiotic-free chicken, lamb and salmon. The tofu is organic. The mangos are imported from India. The paneer cheese is made by the Amish using Choolaah’s recipe. The spices are freshly ground in-house.
And while hot sauces are available, Sankar has a message for diners who may be adverse to spicy dishes.
“Indian food is not about fire, it’s about a rich flavor profile,” she says. “The biggest challenge in ethnic cuisine is educating the public about it.”
An abundance of overwhelmingly positive Yelp reviews led Choolaah to offer a tasty promotion: the first 100 guests at Friday’s grand opening celebration will get free food for a year, equating to one meal and a drink once a week for 52 weeks. Folks can begin lining up outside of the restaurant as early as 9 p.m. on Thursday.
In addition to filling the bellies of 100 diehard “Choolaah-Heads,” the company will donate 30 percent of its earnings to 30 local nonprofits during its first month of operation.
“We want to be a big part of this community,” Sankar says.