The highly-awarded and acclaimed Clay Pit restaurant has become a staple in Austin’s contemporary Indian cuisine market. Since general manager and owner Balinder Singh, known as Bali, took over in 2007, the restaurant has been seemingly predestined for success, continuing the famous legacy of the building’s history as the founding grounds of the Bertram’s shopping empire. The former three-story general merchandise store has been converted into a multitiered seating space that allows families, foodies and socialites a place to enjoy an intimate dining experience — whatever the occasion.
Singh monitors with a careful eye as the sizzling plates lush full of fresh ingredients make their way to the candle lit tables. The light bounces off the limestone walls illuminating the consecutive wins at the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, demonstrating the breath of vitality and passion that has gone into creating irresistible North Indian dishes, innovative drinks and wine pairings, and an enterprise that Bali hopes will one day become: “the first pioneers of Indian restaurants throughout the nation.”
Singh moved from New Orleans in 1999, following his heart and his future wife, Cristela Gonzalez to Austin. He found his calling at the original Clay Pit homestead, quickly moving from employee, to partner, to eventual co-owner. In 2007, the all star culinary team of Bali, Terri D. Singleton, former executive chef at P.F. Chang’s, Navdeep Singh, and Kaval Bobra, assembled their talents and funds with the intent to excel Clay Pit’s concept. The goal was to maintain the menu’s authenticity and revamp the restaurant’s look and feel with an eye towards contemporary presentation and the utmost quality.
The team achieved their goals by “cutting down the elements that drive people away from Indian food,” and incorporating new techniques and ingredients that allow people to form a new relationship with the cuisine, such as the popular crown mussels. The flavorful shellfish is complimented by “the intense Indian spices, then toned down with a touch of merlot and creme,” Bali said with swooping enthusiasm. Bali’s incorporative techniques are the accumulation of his vast experiences. His initial desire to cook was instilled at his mother’s side, watching her cook in their native home of Batiala, Indian. He went on to restaurant management school at Schiller International University in Engelberg, Switzerland. Yet, Bali’s experience as a member of a multicultural family and his journey to America has been his biggest source of inspiration.
Clay Pit’s strong suit is implementing the modern classics with an Indian twist: such as their ginger and cayenne infused bangletinis, and the hot meets cold, sinfully rich and delicious, carrot cake and ice cream. The menu is also suited for accommodation and customization. Many plates can be substituted with fresh vegetables: blanched broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and potatoes, for those that are vegan or gluten free.
This adaptive mentality of “learning, reinvesting in the infrastructure, believing in [the] product, educating people, taking criticism, and looking at the marketing mix,” has enabled expansion. The clay pit team has rejoined forces with two of the previous owners, Tinku Saini and Rajina Pradhan, to form Tarka.
Tarka goes hand and hand with Clay Pit’s culinary practices, but it seeks to provide affordable meals and emphasize the modern “dine on demand” business model. The restaurant offers online ordering capabilities, speedy service, traditional Curries, Kabobs and Biryanis, as well as the new and delicious Naaninis, Paninis served on traditional Naan bread with Indian style fries and masala. As the business continues to thrive, with Tarka’s third location release, on Anderson Lane, Bali has finally been able to take more personal time. He notates the joy he finds in his family, especially, his two daughters: “Making sure they know how to swim, because dad doesn’t. Those things are very precious to me.”
Bali hurries about the rustic, inviting, space of Clay Pit. He greets customers, tends the bar, and advises his staff. The amount of passion and care in his craft is evident. Balinder Singh is a true source of inspiration to the culinary community in that he cements the idea of “having a dream, but not quite knowing which direction its heading, yet, achieving the American dream, and now living it.”