Reviews of upstarts revitalizing subcontinental cooking
There was a moment there in 2019 when Chicago looked as if it was on the precipice of an Indian restaurant revolution: Superkhana. Thattu. Art of the Dosa. Rooh. Vajra.
The pandemic had other ideas. Art of the Dosa and Grand Trunk Road closed; Thattu is on sabbatical; Rooh and Vajra are slinging burgers and fried chicken sandwiches. The progress earned in that one year appeared to ooze out like the spilled innards of Superkhana’s butter chicken calzone.
Now much of that energy and excitement has returned, and it’s being led by an unlikely cast: home cooks, caterers, line cooks, and other first-time (virtual) restauranteurs. They’re bringing a new lens--and a new playfulness--to the foods of the subcontinent; they’re also bringing much needed range, again giving Chicago a diverse and needed set of offerings in terms of menu, style, and price. Necessity guided or provoked these internet- or Instagram-only visions; destiny, I hope, has other plans, including physical restaurants for some of them.
Here are three to keep an eye on. (Note: I intend to add a review of Thommy’s Toddy Shop to this piece once it returns later this spring.)
In a restaurant “moment” where micro- seems to be attached to any and all new food ventures, Tasting India stands out on the sheer scope of its ambitions: a rotating-weekly menu focused on the country’s lesser-known regions and/or culinary idioms, with so many options and add-ons that an order comes with and requires a spreadsheet to delineate everything. Vegan thalis, family-style proteins, breads and desserts, teas and drinks--TI’s Jasmine Sheth is doing it all.
More remarkably, she’s doing it all at an incredibly high level, creating food that in its balance and boundary-pushing is a measurable step forward from what we’ve come to expect from area Indian restaurants. Many of the better neighborhood places in town—e.g., Rangoli, Siri—differentiate themselves from the generic tikka masala joints through their more nuanced spicing; Sheth does that and adds layers of complexity, emphasizing sour, vegetal, and herbaceous flavors often missing in restaurant--Indian or otherwise--cookery. In days of yore, a reviewer might fall back on calling the effort “authentic;” a more deserving word for the excitement happening here is uncompromising.
Sheth’s command of her craft and a menu forever in flux means highlighting individual dishes is largely irrelevant, but there are noticeable patterns in her thalis: chutneys stand out for their bold use of acid, somehow tingling and refreshing the tongue at the same time, almost fizzy; her vegetable dishes embrace their essential grassiness, with fenugreek often used for added punch. And her sambars will surprise you: a recent sindhi kadhi had a mix of sweet and heat that, at least in spirit, functioned like mala. Even her breadstuffs forsake easy pleasures: her papads emphasize peppery bite over oily crunch, her thepla aromatic and woodsy.
The challenge with being able to do anything you want is transposing that gift within the boundaries of more limited and finite models--like, you know, a restaurant. I don’t envy the compromises Sheth will have to make should she choose to translate her format into a brick and mortar--thalis done in a “meat and three” style? Tasting menu?--but given the journeys she’s already undertaken, I’m excited to see where it will take her.
(Note: menu and ordering information released via mailing list at 6PM every Saturday; typically sells out within an hour or two of launch.)
Plattered by Niki
Plattered by Niki was and is a catering option; the titular Mrs. Dhingra, like so many others upended by the pandemic, pivoted to takeout and has been running a weekly takeout service out of a Boystown cooking school since last fall. The setup couldn’t be simpler: a small set of a la carte options--1-2 starters, 1-2 mains, sides, and desserts--that rotate frequently but faithfully stay in the North Indian lane.
The chef shows a deft hand at improving classic dishes that have, in the hands of most area restaurants, become more complacent than comforting. A saag paneer has a mousse-like consistency, the vegetal flavor of the spinach, rather than the heaviness of cream, predominating; an aloo chaat is made extra bright with pomegranate yogurt, its sweetness balanced by a cilantro chutney made slightly grassy to counter. Pulao appears to have an extra burst of cumin, the better to pop the korma main dish, whose sweetness is thankfully dialed down here. I haven’t had a better paratha in town.
Modern updates were less successful. A mixed mushroom korma is a smart idea--pair a cashew cream sauce with the natural nuttiness of fungi--but ours was laden with beech and cremini ‘shrooms, which soaked up the sauce fine but added little in term of taste; maitakes, with their meatiness and nuttiness, would have elevated this dish. A play on tiramisu for dessert that subs in gulab juman for ladyfingers is too clever by half: the mithai are too thick to soak up the espresso and overwhelm the airy textures of the mascarpone cream. Nikki plays it straight with the Italian flavors here, but this dish really calls out for the subcontinental touch: saffron, cardamom, cashews, rosewater--anything to balance out the density of the gulab.
To say Chef Dhingra’s food occupies a comfortable middle ground is hardly damning it with faint praise, because well-executed cooking at this level is sorely underrepresented in Chicago. Nothing innovative or new here--just done better. We need that.
(Order by noon Thursday for pickup Friday afternoon/evening. Note: during Restaurant Week she offered a pre-fixe of a set starter, choice of main, all the sides, and choice of dessert for $45 person, though two of us got two dinners out of a single order.)
Dhuan BBQ Company
Sheal Patel’s mashup of eastern spicing and western barbecue/grilling technique is the sort of culinary daydream that, coupled with the five or so days between order and pickup, compels projection of one’s own as to what the food will taste like. Me, I’ll confess that I had hopes he would level up what’s great about the Pakistani BBQ standbys on Devon (i.e., Khan’s, Bundoo Khan) into something more modern and refined, tandoor mastery that would placate my North Shore mom and Malayalam mother-in-law alike.
Funny thing about Dhuan, though: Patel is actually cooking very comfortably in the Chicago BBQ paradigm, light on hardcore technique and easy on the comfort foods. In spite of the implied West Tennessee affiliation, his “Mumphis” ribs look to Carson’s more than the subcontinent or Beale Street: think fall-off-the-bone meat and sweet tomato-y sauce rather than meat floss and dry rubs. Save for the spice blend, the masala cheesesteak is textbook Chicago steak and lemonade joint, the ribeye, cheese, and hoagie congealing together in typical corner grill fashion. When’s the steak sweet coming?
What differentiates Patel from both hot dog stand and cabbie joint is his attention to spicing, with which he distinguishes himself by his almost surgical precision, even amidst the more plebeian ingredients and flavors. An aloo paratha stands out not for its humble ingredients--just potatoes and flatbread, really--but for the slightest tickle of lime pickle, which adds a brilliant tanginess to the carb-on-carb attack. Those ribs have just the slightest and slinkiest backbeat of heat, a function of what Patel says is over 50 spices in the blend.
I’m not convinced the items or the cooking methods are doing this talent justice, however. The “meat jello” approach to cooking the ribs and the wet sauce application inhibit the spicing from penetrating much beyond the surface; the insides are fatty and soft, but there’s not much flavor. The spice blend deserves the full Memphis treatment: the rub adhering to the meat, the meat adhering more firmly to the bone, so it takes on smoke and requires real pull when eating. The cheesesteak, too, is just not the optimal vehicle for the masala: it may sate as a grease delivery mechanism, but the intended seekh kabob flavors don’t come across amidst the meat goo.
There’s vision and moxie here, and in the spicing techniques the makings of a unique voice--it just may take a restaurant kitchen to realize it.
(Note: menu released on Monday via Instagram; DM for order and pickup information.)