Vermilion, the fabled Indian and Latin American fusion restaurant in River North, has hit a crossroads. Last week, the restaurant unveiled a new look and menu as the venue approaches its 17th birthday. During that time, owner Rohini Dey saw America’s appetite for Indian food transform, along with Hubbard Street — the once quiet corridor where the restaurant sits. The strip is now home to a boisterous set of bars that attracts tourists and partiers near Downtown Chicago.
Tourists aren’t something River North restaurants have to factor into present customer bases, as the novel coronavirus has wiped out tourism. But Vermilion has offered takeout during the pandemic, showing a willingness to adapt to the times. The restaurant also offers an outdoor patio along Hubbard. Chicago now has a scant four options if they want to eat South Asian food outdoors (Rooh, Eggoholic, Chiya Chai at the Chicago Riverwalk).
This isn’t the first time Dey, who holds a doctorate in international business, has made changes. She also refreshed the interiors and menus in 2015. Dey had planned the changes to the restaurant before the pandemic forced the state to close restaurants in mid-March. Dey saw two paths for Vermilion. It could end a long run on Hubbard Street and not bother reopening during the pandemic. The other choice was to make some changes. Vermilion now even serves spirit-free drinks.
“We weren’t going to do the status quo,” Dey says.
Vermilion gained national acclaim after it opened in 2004. That led to a New York spin off with author Salman Rushdie as an investor. Dey professed that she’s a fan of literature, including the works of the Satanic Verses author. Rushdie was also married to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. Big Apple critics, including those at Eater, didn’t receive Vermillion with open arms. Vermilion New York closed in 2018.
Last year saw an explosion of modern Indian food in Chicago. Rooh arrived in West Loop. Other big openings included Superkhana International in Logan Square and Vajra (which also serves Nepalese cuisine) in West Town. Dey sat on a panel with many of Chicago’s prominent South Asian chefs last year at Chicago Gourmet. Indian food was causing some buzz in Chicago, and Vermillion had a chance to be part of it.
The space received a few cosmetic changes that Dey says brings more light into the room. The menu has been streamlined so customers can eat heavy or light. Gone are the gaudy tasting menus; Vermilion’s signature lobster dish was also cut. Each month, the menu will also highlight a different international cuisine, hoping to give a voice to the marginalized. For August, Vermilion’s offering a rijstafel, paying homage to Indonesia featuring beef or jackfruit rendang. Chicago only has one Indonesian restaurant, the ghost kitchen run by Bumbo Roux.
Other new menu additions include an emphasis on Indian street food. A curry leaf tamarind paneer is a highlight. There are also pakoras (fritters), and charred chile en mole.
Dey, further embracing social justice cues, also consulted with her staff on items designed to keep pressing issues in focus. Some restaurant owners feel they have a responsibility to make sure customers aren’t in a bubble. Alinea tried this at its rooftop pop-up, but the now infamous coronavirus canapé drew various criticism.
At Vermilion, Dey and company added a drink called the Black Fist, which pays homage to Black Lives Matter. There’s also a dessert called “Black, Brown & White Dissolution.” Dey is OK if critics wants to accuse her of pandering. It’s wouldn’t be the first time.
“We had a drink called ‘Impeachment,” she says, referring to her views on the White House administration.
For years, Dey has raised her voice on a variety of topics, including women’s issues. She’s the founder of the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership Program and has made several TV appearances to discuss issues affecting the restaurant industry. She wrote a May column for CNN where she painted a bleak pandemic picture for restaurants.
Dey chuckled at the reception she received for the work. She’ll continue to exercise that voice, and she’ll do that while operating a reinvented restaurant. Stroll through the space below.