227 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
In October, if you’d asked Preeti Waas to introduce herself, she’d have told you she’s an adjunct culinary professor at Wake Tech who owns two small-batch food companies, Sugar and Spice Kitchen and Jolly Good Jams. There’d be no mention of aspirations to own a restaurant.
Yet on November 2, she opened Cheeni, an Indian-inspired tea shop serving chai, coffee, and tiffin (light snacks) on the ground floor of the Poyner YMCA. By saying yes to a surprise opportunity and tapping into her Indian roots, Waas is giving downtown Raleigh what it didn’t know it was missing: a tea shop that doubles as a quick-bite spot, where a cup of chai and a slab of chili cheese toast make for an inspired lunch pairing.
When the Poyner Y found itself with a vacant café space a couple of months ago, it reached out to Wake Tech and came across Waas’s bio; seeing that she taught a culinary boot-camp course and had experience running her own food businesses, it approached her about taking on the project. The two previous tenants had been coffee shops, and the Y was amenable to new ideas.
To determine what niche she could fill, Waas employed old-fashioned market research. She stood outside the Y and polled gym-goers on what was missing. Their answer: food.
That’s when the Indian tea-shop idea clicked. In India, tea shops are known as much for their chai as for their tiffin, so much so that Waas uses the terms “snack shop” and “tea shop” interchangeably. And tiffin are all about quality ingredients and providing sustenance.
“Americans serve too many empty-calorie snacks,” Waas says. “In India, it’s more than that. Every bite is supposed to provide what you need for that time of day.”
Cheeni’s menu is well-suited to deliver on that premise, whether you’re grabbing a superfood smoothie or açai bowl to refuel post-workout or vegetable puffs as an afternoon pick-me-up. The puffs read like samosas—puff pastry stuffed with a tangy-savory mix of potatoes, carrots, and green beans seasoned with turmeric and coriander—but they’re baked instead of fried, and flakier, too.
The vegetable puffs are worth a try, especially since they’re rarely found on Indian restaurant menus. But as Waas will tell you, any self-respecting Indian snack shop must sell chili cheese toast, which is billed as “Indian street style” under the menu’s Toast Bar offerings. (Chili in this equation means peppers, not the kind better suited to topping cheese fries.) Waas had hoped to import Amul cheese, a beloved Indian brand of cheddar-esque processed cheese, but upon discovering a shortage, she created her own blend. The cheese is liberally layered atop thick slices of sourdough from lucettegrace, topped with sliced green chilies, then broiled until golden and bubbly.
You’d do well to pair it with a cup of masala chai, which Waas brews daily by steeping black Indian tea leaves in milk, water, and freshly ground spices. To determine the spice blend, Waas looks to the Ayurvedic diet principle of maintaining the body’s balance between hot and cold; this time of year calls for a warming mix of fresh ginger, cardamom, fennel seeds, and Tellicherry peppercorns.
The coffee is top-notch, too. Waas, a self-described coffee snob, anchors the menu with South Indian filter coffee, in which finely ground imported coffee, redolent of chicory, is brewed into a thick, syrupy concentrate and combined with steamed milk and sugar. The result is a rich, full-bodied coffee without any bitterness. If you prefer drip coffee, Waas pours a custom blend from Oak City Coffee Roasters.
Though Waas felt she took a risk by doing something different, she had an inkling that the concept could work in downtown Raleigh.
So far, the reception has been affirming.
“People now come in on their lunch break and get their snacks, and they settle wherever they want in the lobby,” she says. “They sit there, they eat, and they chat. They’re spending their lunch hour in the lobby of the YMCA.”
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