Sneak down to the basement of the Art Institute, trying your best to skip the admittedly excellent Thorne Miniature Rooms, and you’ll find the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights.
Though it sounds like the least interesting exhibit in the whole museum, I’m always mesmerized by the hundreds of meticulously crafted glass objects. I have spent hours gazing at the intricate design patterns, amazed at the way the colors remain vibrant even after hundreds of years.
Though the exhibit is currently being renovated, I thought back to the room during the first course at Indienne, a remarkable new Indian restaurant by chef Sujan Sarkar in the heart of River North’s dining district. That’s when I got to admire the passion fruit pani puri, a play on one of India’s many savory snacks known collectively as chaats..
Here the filled cylindrical bite has been re-imagined as a strikingly beautiful orange sphere of lightly jellied passion fruit set atop a crisp and wavy version of hollow puri flatbread. It gleams in the light like colored glass, while edible flowers add pops of color. The dish is stunning enough visually to rest in a museum, and when you take a bite, it offers a similarly impressive rush of fruity sweetness, herbal freshness and crackly crunch. What a wonderful way to start a meal.
Even though it has only been open for a few months, Indienne already offers one of Chicago’s most exciting and pleasurable tasting menu experiences. It’s also one of the city’s most reasonably priced. At $95 for the vegetarian tasting menu and $105 for the Chef’s Tasting menu, a dinner here is nearly $200 less than several fine-dining spots in town. Combinations don’t get much more alluring.
Though Sarkar has grand ambitions for Indienne, he is also adamant the prices not get out of control. “I want people to try my food,” Sarkar said. “When I was a young cook, I could never afford to go to those expensive places. Plus, a lot of those places aren’t really cooking. They are curating ingredients. I want to be a cook.”
One way Sarkar does this is by wisely avoiding the trap of automatically parading out the usual luxury ingredients. I’ll never complain about eating caviar, but I also don’t think every tasting menu meal has to lead off with a hefty scoop of briny fish eggs. When I see foie gras, it’s usually the least interesting course. Yes, there are truffles, but they are kept to a reasonable amount and their funky, earthy aroma works to elevate both courses.
The meal is also a tight seven-course event. “I think seven courses is a very good balance,” Sarkar said. “After that, the meal can become a drag.”
The last time Chicagoans saw Sarkar, he was heading up the kitchen at Rooh, which opened in the West Loop in 2019. (It picked up three stars from former Tribune food critic Phil Vettel.) He’s since left the project, though he’s still involved with the Columbus, Ohio; and San Francisco outlets of Rooh. But he was already a decorated chef by the time he landed in the Midwest, working his way through a half-dozen cities on three continents.
At Indienne, Sarkar offers both a tasting menu and a vegetarian alternative that also happens to be egg-free. On a recent visit, my dining guest and I tried both, and we couldn’t decide which one we liked more. (Sarkar can also put together a vegan menu, though you’ll need to give the restaurant 48-hour notice.)
After the excellent pani puri, the yogurt course continues the chaat exploration, this time tackling aloo chaat. Strands of potato are fried into a crunchy nest that rests on a delicate yogurt mousse and a jiggly panna cotta, with three colorful chutneys precisely piped on top. Each bite is crackly, creamy, and bursting with spices. It’s another triumph.
It’s not until the third course the two tasting menus truly diverge. Sarkar said he always knew he wanted to have a vegetarian option, especially since so many people in India eat vegetarian meals on a regular basis. Plus, he finds vegetables more exciting to prepare. “Cooking meat is easy,” Sarkar said. “But it takes a lot of effort to keep the textures right for the vegetables.”
Sarkar described the vegetarian menu’s fourth course as a play on a samosa. But instead of being made with a flour dough, Sarkar uses yuba. “That’s soy milk skin,” Sarkar said. “I wanted to cut down on the amount of gluten.” The crackly casing holds creamy edamame and potato and rests on a yellow chile pachadi, a smooth but genuinely spicy sauce.
Not to say the meatier menu isn’t worth trying. One of the most intriguing courses of the night is the chicken malai tikka. Instead of serving a piece of chicken, Sarkar dishes out a rectangular slice of chicken terrine made with pressed thigh meat. Each one is topped with a few exactly positioned slices of truffle and is paired with a supple braised leek. That’s all tied together with a malai sauce made using Amul cheese, an extremely popular brand of Indian processed cheese. As Sarkar admitted, he has a soft spot for the product, and it certainly adds a salty, sour note to the velvety-smooth sauce.
The chef’s tasting menu ends with the lamb burrah, featuring an impeccably cooked piece of lamb with four dynamically flavored sauces. Only the slightly dated plating (lots of sauce swooshes) holds this dish back.
The dessert courses allow Sarkar to show off his childhood love of sweets. “In Kolkata, we eat sweet before everything else, and sweet after everything else,” Sarkar said. Both menus end with different desserts, each remarkable. The vegetarians might win with the besan barfi, a twist on an Indian dessert that gets a decadent topping of chocolate. On the chef’s tasting menu, you’ll get rasmalai (air). Traditionally, the popular Indian dessert of rasmalai features a kind of cheese soaked in thickened milk imbued with cardamom. Sarkar swaps the cheese for cloudlike meringues, lending the dessert a breezy finale.
Indienne also has an a la carte menu, which I tried one night at the bar. While you’ll be able to try a few extra dishes, such as an excellent duck keema, I missed the progression of the tasting menu.
But I did love the cocktails. Each is named after a city, and while they might not necessarily sound coherent, they are deeply fascinating. Take the Delhi, which somehow combines mezcal, goat cheese, apricot and grapefruit into a suave sipper. The wine list is equally engaging. Instead of dividing up the bottles by region or varietal, you’ll find them grouped by art movements, such as pop art, impressionism and abstract expressionism.
Indienne is already one of the most exciting new restaurants in Chicago. But I have to admit that part of me did worry Sarkar would quickly move on to another project in another city. Fortunately, he’s serious about staying here.
“My address is Chicago,” Sarkar said. “I’ve lived in so many big cities, including London, Dubai, Bangkok, San Francisco and New York. I’m so proud I live in Chicago now. The best decision I made was to open Indienne here.”
217 W. Huron St.
Tribune rating: Excellent, three stars
Open: 5-10 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 5-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
Prices: Vegetarian tasting menu $95; chef’s tasting menu $105
Noise: Conversation friendly
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, bathroom on the same floor
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.