Whenever David and I drive to Chicago, we arrive famished. Thinking that it is only about 4 hours away, we usually eat a light breakfast and head out the door. With Chicago restaurants on the brain, we don’t want to dawdle with lunch anywhere else. But of course, there are inevitably gas stops, traffic, and hotel check-ins, until we’re finally eating at 3 pm and ravenous.
Luckily, I have a plan of action for all future Chicago trips, and that answer is Shree Indian Restaurant in Westmont, Illinois. It’s a vegetarian restaurant, focusing on both southern and northern Indian dishes. It’s about 20 miles from downtown, which means we’ll be eating at least 40 minutes earlier. Even better, the food there is fantastic.
Stuck in the middle of a mini mall, from the outside it’s very unassuming. You’d never guess the complexity of flavors awaiting inside. We visited a couple of times while we were in Illinois recently – first for lunch.
When we walked in, they had a buffet set up. We perused the buffet and noticed the signs with names of all of the dishes. It is a vegetarian restaurant, not vegan, and the signs didn’t indicate which dishes were vegan and which were not. Because of that, we figured we’d order off the menu instead but were told that it’s buffet-only at lunch.
I told the server that we were vegan and would like to know which dishes on the buffet line were animal product-free. He brought the manager over to help us, and the manager walked us through the line, pointing out which items had dairy in them. There were still plenty of vegan items on the buffet line. So David and I grabbed plates and started dishing up chana masala, uthappam, rice, and more. The bread on the buffet was naan, which isn’t vegan, and so they brought us hot poori, straight from the fryer, puffy and gorgeous.
Many times at buffets, the food is a bit more bland to accommodate a variety of palates. However, the food at this buffet still had plenty of flavor and spice, and everything was piping hot. The restaurant was busy with lots of families, and you could tell that it’s a popular lunch spot.
The next time we visited was for dinner. We started with an appetizer of vegetable cutlets made with potatoes and peas, lightly rolled in flour, fried, and served with cilantro chutney & tamarind sauce. The cutlets were crisp on the outside, but soft and dense on the inside.
For our main dishes, I was having a hard time deciding between masala dosa, one of my all-time favorite dishes, and chana bhatura, which I’d never tried before. The manager was working as our waiter, and he told us that people drive in from the city for the chana bhatura. Clearly, that was the one to get. He said it was typically made with dairy ingredients but that they could make it vegan. (From looking at recipes online, it seems that bhatura is generally not vegan. The bread seemed to be the same as we had at lunch, and so it seems like they gave us poori instead.)
The chickpeas were dark in color, a grayish black, and were served with two puffy, fried pieces of bread. The manager told us that the chickpeas are just regular chickpeas but that they are soaked and cooked with awala (also called amla), otherwise known as Indian gooseberries. He said that in Bangladesh, where he is from, women and children love to eat them, but that they are very tart and sour. They lay the berries in the sun to dry, and they are then used for their homeopathic properties and for cooking. He said that they are especially good for digestion, which can be handy when a person’s diet includes a lot of beans and lentils.
The chickpeas had a rich, earthiness about them that can only be described as umami. They had a deep undertone of a flavor like brown lentils. We stuffed our bread with the chickpeas, and I could easily see why someone would drive in from the city for this dish. It reminded me of eating in New York City and how somehow everything there, even something as simple as a bagel, just seems to taste better. You wouldn’t think that a person could be blown away by chickpeas, but this dish managed it.
After our discussion, the manager brought out a little bowl of amla for us to try. They were dried with salt, and he said that they buy them either salted or unsalted, and then just adjust the salt in their recipes accordingly. The amla was astringent, dry, and left a kind of waxy coating in the mouth. I’m eager to buy some for myself, so that I can try making a similar chickpea dish at home.
We also ordered Navratan Kuruma, vegetables cooked in a coconut sauce. Again, this typically comes with dairy-based yogurt in it as well, but they omitted it for us. This creamy and rich dish was delicious. Although, it had a hard time competing with the chana bhatura, which had set the bar very high.
After our lovely dinner, I’ll definitely be counting the miles as we edge closer and closer on our next trip to the Chicago area. The service at Shree Indian restaurant could not have been friendlier, especially from the manager, who made us feel so welcome and shared a lot of really fun and interesting insights about the dishes we were eating.