363 King St. Downtown
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Entrée prices: Moderate ($9-16)
A half a block south of Marion Square the ancient roots of rice are on display. At Chinar, the lamb biryani ($11.95) ,with its gently melded flavors, perfectly separated grains, and exotic scent of the Indian subcontinent, shares an ancient link with the grains of the Carolina Lowcountry. You’ve seen this kind of casserole before, but on a lazy Sunday buffet and filled with chicken or okra, served up with cornbread and collards. We like to call it pilaf, purlow, pilau, or any number of other variations, but it remains the same in its basic form — rice layered with protein and spice and gently baked into a steaming amalgamation. Purists will argue about the method and the differences between boiling the stock for pilaf and constructing the layers for biryani, but their spiritual kinship exemplifies the ancient art of rice cookery.
Chinar is a normal Indian restaurant, crammed into a former sub shop with the obligatory knickknacks strung along the walls, and a steady stream of coeds porking down plates of chicken tikka and sheaves of nan. They serve a decent spread in a cramped space, filled nightly with steaming bowls of spice and the gentle sounds of the sitar. You almost expect to see a yogi saunter through the restaurant and contort in the front window. It fits right in so near to the college.
Despite the exoticism of Indian restaurants, much of the food is more familiar than your average Budweiser fan might expect. Appetizers like the papri chat ($4.95), a delightful salad of cold chickpeas and fried flour dumplings topped with a cool spike of yogurt and cilantro, and the lamb samosa, a veritable “hot pocket” of ground lamb and green peas ($3.95) aren’t so foreign and could easily be the best deal on King Street. The appetizer platter ($6.95) combines a potato samosa with a variety of deep-fried vegetables — cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, and eggplant — all battered up and slipped into hot grease until golden brown.
The rest of the menu could certainly please a diverse crowd. There are plenty of vegetarian options, a stupendous collection of fresh breads, masala of every stripe, and the usual smattering of saag, korma, vindaloo, and curried preparations. But it’s the rice that stands out. Not so much because it’s the best collection of biryani and pulao that you’ll ever eat, but because it illustrates the beginnings of a long journey that brought rice to the Lowcountry and harkens back to the forbearers of our Southern soul.
From Persia to Africa and the Southern shores, rice and its attendant cuisine rode to Carolina on a global wave of empire and exploration, over thousands of miles of silk roads, through exotic spice bazaars, and across formidable expanses of desert and ocean. Rice’s cultivation accelerated American slavery and gilded the pockets of aristocratic planters. It also left its mark. Our local cuisine — like that of India’s — is piled high with rice dishes.
At a humble little Indian restaurant on King Street, you can taste the beginnings of it all: the expansion of the Persian invasions, the court of Alexander, and the splendor of the Mughal dynasties wrapped in a bowl of flavors. It is a pertinent juxtaposition. For a city like Charleston, which sells its soul to the past, you’d think fine dining would take cues from such ancient connections and capitalize on our cosmopolitan beginnings. Maybe it’s time for us to look beyond grits, to delve into the belly of our cuisine’s history, to figure out where the heck chicken bog comes from, and reinterpret that into a fancy $30 plate.