Chefs Sujan Sarkar and Sahil Sethi say they’ve both worked in Dubai where it gave the pair a good understanding of local cuisine and helped ignite Sarkar’s passion for grilled meats like kabobs.
Sarkar, who admits to working in Dubai for six months, says he misses food off the grill while working at Indian restaurants. There is some cultural crossover between South Asian cuisine and the countries that many lump into the Middle East. But grilled food isn’t something that offten get featured on Indian menus, at least in America. They aren’t featured on the tasting menu at Indienne, the splashy River North restaurant that debuted in September, one that blends Western techniques with Indian ingredients.
Sifr, 660 N. Orleans Street (now open) is Arabic for “zero.” Sarkar says it represents a start and the connection between the Middle East and South Asia (India is credited with creating the concept of “zero” in the fifth century) Because of the cultural crossover, in many ways Sifr, the new restaurant will fill that grilled food void for Sarkar. The opening menu features black tiger prawn with garlicky toum and harissa emulsion, plus a Hoikkado scallop with zaitoon and charred red pepper sauce. Vegetarian options include a maitake mushroom with zaatar and Meyer lemon; and halloumi with pickled stone fruit. Another special dish is a falafel served with melon. Sethi says fruit will rotate seasonally. Back to meat as there’s also an Australian wagyu beef ribeye served with fermented mushroom cream.
Sifr calls itself “modern Middle Eastern,” not owing its inspiration to a specific country. This is Sethi’s show. He’s spent time in Abu Dhabi and worked with cooks from Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan who all put their stamps on various menus.
“It’s bringing all the flavors from that region into a modern interpretation of the food what we think is a part of that culture,” Sethi says.
The restaurant takes over Bernie’s, a small restaurant on the corner of Orleans and Erie. There’s a roof deck that’s being renovated. There’s hope to winterproof the second floor. Sifr’s small plates and cocktails (melon paloma, Kunafa fat-washed Old Fashioned) should play well there. They’ve inherited a pizza oven and Sarkar and Sethi are excited about fresh pita and more.
Sarkar and Sethi cooked together at Rooh Chicago in West Loop. Sethi led the kitchen after Sarkar’s departure following an acrimonious breakup with owner Manish Mallick. That led to Chicago magazine’s review of Indienne that questioned Sarkar’s credentials. Reviews seldom have an investigative journalism aspect, but calls were made to confirm Sarkar’s resume casting a shadow on his experience. Evidently, Chicago’s brass didn’t read too much into its own review. The magazine, as Sarkar and Sethi point out, held its Secret Supper pop-up at Indienne in April. Sarkar didn’t argue with any of the reporting. He only said: “I’m too old for this,” Sarkar. He preferred the discussion to focus on Sifr, a sentiment backed by his PR rep sitting tableside during the interview.
It’s onward and upward for Sarkar and Sethi. Sarkar still maintains connections with the founders of Rooh in San Francisco. He recently served comedian Mindy Kaling. Likewise, Sethi says a location scout for The Bear was interested in Indienne. Sethi jokes that his chef didn’t know who Kaling and The Bear are; Sarkar prefers keeping up with Bollywood over Hollywood.
Sifr, 660 N. Orleans Street, open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.