One of the most unique restaurants in America debuted last week in River North, gracefully combining Indian and French elements. Indienne features non-vegetarian and vegetarian tasting menus — chef and co-owner Sujan Sarkar says if vegans give him two days’ notice, his kitchen will accommodate them, too.
Sarkar notes the history of the space at 217 W. Huron Street. It housed Graham Elliot, a former two-Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant from the celebrity chef. Sarkar isn’t chasing awards with Indienne, but an opportunity exists: judges across the country are seeing Indian restaurants in a different light in recent years. Earlier in 2022, the James Beard Foundation awarded Asheville, North Carolina’s Chai Pani as America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant. Additionally, Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka won Best Chef: New York State.
Indienne joins Wazwan in Wicker Park as Chicago’s only two Indian restaurants with tasting menus. Though Indienne features elegant items like a lobster-topped bisi bele bath — a dish of rice, lentils, and more than 30 ingredients; it was once reserved for royalty — Sarkar says he isn’t after glory: “If you’re opening a restaurant, it has to be for the right reasons.”
Owned by Sarkar and an investor group that includes Roy Appukuttan, a contractor who built Rooh Chicago and owns The Swill Inn (a bar in River West), the chef also designed the 85-seat dining room. It includes a 10-seat bar and a 14-seat private dining room. Sarkar opened Rooh in West Loop, but after a falling out with the local owner, he departed last year. Sarkar says he nearly left America for London before Graham Elliot's space opened up. He remains involved in Rooh locations in San Fransico and Palo Alto, California, as well as Baar Baar in New York.
This project is independent of those restaurants, and the ambiance at Indienne is geared more toward fine dining. Uncles and aunties accustomed to Devon Street’s working-class South Asian restaurants may scratch their heads when they see their plates decorated with dots of sauce. But that’s OK.
“This was a project that I started, something that has never been done before in America,” Sarkar says.
French cooking is interwoven in most American fine dining experiences, and it’s been a gateway to success for a pair of Chicago restaurants that served cuisine from cultures that weren’t always welcomed on the fine dining stage. Both Mexique and Parachute earned Michelin stars for blending Mexican and Korean flavors, respectively. Carlos Gaytán (Tzuco) and Beverly Kim (Parachute) have since graduated away from French references, preferring to cook more traditional representations of their heritages. While Sarkar says this has never been done in America, the late Floyd Cardoz built up quite a following in New York with Tabla, a restaurant that combined French and Indian cuisine. Cardoz died in 2020 from COVID.
Knowing that history, Sarkar wants to remind the public that his experience covers more than cooking Indian food. He’s familiar with European techniques and ingredients. Indienne’s tasting menu includes galouti, a northern Indian kebob typically made with ground lamb. Indienne’s version uses foie gras and chicken liver. If Indienne were to have an anthem, Sarkar says, it’s Indian food made with atypical ingredients and some European techniques. It’s also a way to highlight the labor that goes into Indian cooking, Sarkar notes, showing respect for the time, number of spices, and ingredients that it takes to cook some Indian dishes. Still, a $90 tasting menu is a relative steal in Downtown Chicago. There are also wine pairings. Fancy cocktails include Mumbai, a rum drink made with a clarified milk punk and steeped with fruit and strawberry vinegar.
Another dish on the tasting menu, lamb burrah, is marinated in a paste made from hemp seeds and pine nuts, and then cooked on a wood-fired grill. The custom-made grill is something of a novelty for Indian restaurants. Sarkar says beyond the tandoor — which is reserved for naan; vegetarians fearful of cross-contamination can rejoice — Indienne’s kitchen won’t look like a traditional Indian restaurant’s kitchen. After the lamb is cooked over wood, servers will bring the dish to the table along with a personal-sized brass grill.
“I want it to be fun, I want to be interactive,” Sarkar says. “It’s not where you just go and sit down and go home. It will be more! It has to be fun, it has to be light and airy.”
There’s also an a la carte menu, with dishes like duck keema and octopus with miso, fennel, and fermented cape gooseberry; octopus has emerged as a trendy item in Chicago. The appetizers and small dishes will be available at the bar for a casual meal where walk-ins are encouraged.
Diners should immediately notice the use of parentheticals on the menu. For those familiar with South Asian cuisine, these are callbacks to traditional food names. While Sarkar is confident, there’s still worry that some diners might be scared off by certain items. The fried and savory snack known as vada, a South Indian specialty, is referred to as a “lentil doughnut.” The vada in disguise, with its crispiness and saltiness, pairs with Golden Osetra caviar. Champagne is optional.
There’s also a pastry chef on staff with desserts that go beyond traditional sweets. Think jamun & plum sorbet and besan barfi (chocolate cremeux, pistachio financier, kumquat chutney, milk ice cream).
Chris Chacko of Sparrow Coffee, a caffeine provider to many Chicago fine dining restaurants, is working on a coffee program but sourcing is a challenge, so the team will wait to introduce that at a later date. More significant for an Indian restaurant, they’re also working on a traditional chai from black tea and spices. Chacko says staff will brew the tea in the manner of traditional Indian street vendors which amplifies Mailiard flavors: “The chai will be brewed continuously throughout service to deepen its profile for authenticity,” Chacko writes.
Sarkar adds they’ll have a tea cart with the chai and other Indian teas. The cart will have different sugars (like jaggery and Japanese style), plus different kinds of vinegar. A drop of mango vinegar can create a different experience.
Suddenly, River North has a variety of Indian options, from pizza (Moti Cafe) to fusion (Vermillion) to traditional (India House). Indienne (pronounced “indeen”) is the French word for “Indian,” (also a reference to a type of textile sold in India), and will fit in nicely with those restaurants, Sarkar says. For those clinging to tradition, he has something to share.
“Tomatoes aren’t from India,” he says. “If you don’t have tomato, how do you have butter chicken?”
Indienne officially opens on Wednesday, September 28.
Indienne, 217 W. Huron Street, open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Monday dinner service coming soon. Reservations via Tock.