Get a taste of India far from Devon Avenue

March 11, 2009 11:26:19 AM PDT
Slumdog Millionaire's success at the Oscars a few weeks ago has caused renewed interest in all things Indian. That includes food. If you want to experience the best of India, in Chicago at least, you head to Devon Avenue, in West Rogers Park. But if you're just looking for a taste, there are plenty of other options: downtown at least, there's India House in River North, Gaylord off of North Michigan Avenue, and over in Streeterville, near Northwestern's hospital campus, Indian Garden.

It's far from the bustle of Devon Avenue, but sampling the lunch buffet, or even a few of the dishes from the menu at Indian Garden in Streeterville, is a good introduction for beginners to the cuisine of Northern India.

"That's more tandoori, and the curries and medium spicy food and basically the dal is the major part of the dinner or lunch," said Joseph Kolencherry, of Indian Garden.

Dal is cooked lentils. In this case, they're tiny black ones, simmered with heavy cream and finished off with fresh ginger and cilantro. Aside from the stovetop curries, the tandoor is used frequently. It's a vertical, clay oven, used to roast juicy pieces of yogurt-and-spice marinated chicken or shrimp on giant skewers.

It also bakes bread: in this case, naan that emerges puffy and blistered, or parathas and rotis, some embedded with fresh garlic and cilantro. Good starters include pyramid-shaped samosas: in essence, flaky pastry dough stuffed with mashed potatoes, peas and spices; a good lead-off for vegetarians. Another veggie-friendly starter is the bhel puri - considered a snack in India, the plate is mounded with puffed rice, tomatoes and onions, plus potatoes and crunchy chickpea snacks. You add as much sweet tamarind or mint chutney as you like, then mix and enjoy. Saag paneer is just cooked spinach and homemade cottage cheese, simmered with heavy cream, it's one of several fortified Northern dishes.

"The Kadhai paneer has a lot of cream and it has cashews -- cashew paste -- that makes it heavy," said Kolencherry.

But not everything is heavy. Biryani is a saffron-laced rice dish with assorted vegetables, sometimes it arrives with meat or shrimp. Spice levels here are generally tame, and if you're looking for a more authentic experience, you'll have to ask the kitchen to ramp up the flavors. That shouldn't be too hard, considering their customer service mantra.

"The supreme important is the guest," said Kolencherry.

Other surprising locations for good Indian include Taj Mahal in Orland Park and Priya Restaurant in Schaumburg.

Indian Garden
247 E. Ontario St. 2nd floor

Other good places for Indian (not on Devon Ave.)

Taj Mahal
14812 S. LaGrange Rd., Orland Park

939 W. Wise Rd., Schaumburg


Gaylord India
100 E. Walton St.

India House
59 W. Grand Ave.