The food isn’t the only unique aspect surrounding Rooh, the modern Indian restaurant opening next month on Randolph Street in West Loop. How customers receive the San Francisco import’s cocktails will also help determine the restaurant’s success, and ownership is bringing fancy drinks with South Asian ingredients to the three-level space at 736 W. Randolph Street.
The drinks have to be important — they have to make good use of the first-floor bar left behind by the previous tenant. Rooh’s look and feel is upscale, taking familiar Indian dishes and plating them similarly to a Western fine dining restaurant. The San Francisco location opened in 2017. A New York location, Baar Baar, opened in 2018. There’s now plans to open a Rooh in Columbus, Ohio.
The West Loop is in flux with soaring real estate costs leaving some locals feeling it’s only a matter of time until Randolph Restaurant Row, Chicago’s most trendy dining strip, is overrun by large out-of-town restaurant companies and chains. Where does Rooh fit into this? Ask Aaron Pollack, Rooh Chicago’s beverage director.
“The last thing we want to do is become a chain,” he said.
For the opening, pegged for mid-May, they’re bringing the same drink list that’s served in San Francisco. Drinks include the “Patana Fizz” (gin, mushroom, lychee, truffle salt, egg white) and the “Hyderabad Tonic” (gin, turmeric grapefruit tonic). Pollack is already thinking about tweaks. Chicago is a unique drinking town that loves its brown and stirred drinks. Margaritas are the No. 1 drink in Boston, New York, LA, Miami, and Tampa, according to a Nielsen report. The drink’s not even in Chicago’s top five drinks as the old fashioned takes the top spot. Whiskey is a popular drink in India, and Pollack wants to bring some of those brands to Rooh Chicago.
Pollack’s been all around town including stints at Rocking Horse in Logan Square and the Dawson in West Town. He’s got a unique background in managing an Indian restaurant’s bar. When he first moved to Chicago, he lived in Rogers Park near Devon Avenue, the traditional home of Chicago’s South Asian immigrants. While many of his friends late night would be on the prowl for a hot dog or pizza slice, he’d head down Devon and try the food there. So, Pollack has some experience with the flavors they’re trying to build at Rooh.
The cocktails can provide a cultural history lesson. Pollack talks about a drink (tea valley punch) served in antique tea cups, poured from a kettle. He talks about how the drink, in a way, dates back several hundred years where alcohol was prohibited in certain parts of India. Folks — women were particularly scrutinized — had to conceal the booze and a tea kettle provided the ideal venue.
The past tenant’s draft beer system wasn’t properly installed. Instead of fixing it, Rooh management decided to remove the system. They’ll have bottles. Perhaps they’ll serve beer like Dogfish Head’s Namaste, a beer brewed with coriander, cloves, and citrus.
Cocktails are typically overlooked at Indian restaurants in Chicago. But places like Vajra, Mango Pickle, and the upcoming Superkhana International are mixing up new drinks to cater to the grown-up children of South Asian immigrants and other customers who are more familiar with Indian food and are demanding a better drink selection.
Look for more coverage of Rooh in the coming weeks. It’s one of Chicago’s most anticipated restaurant openings of the year.