59 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, IL 60610
Web: India House
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Chicago Favorites Indian Pizza
"The lesson of this visit was clear: the same general ingredients that worked at one place flopped at another due to different proportions, apparent freshness, and preparation."
Particularly in the age of phony Internet "user" reviews, relying on recommendations from savvy friends (and trustworthy web sites - wink!) is a smart way to find the world's greatest things rather than getting sucked into marketing traps. One friend of Buffalo Chow has proved so adept at Chicago restaurant picks over the years that we've come to trust his suggestions implicitly, so on this visit, we decided to follow his guidance to try two places we hadn't visited before; as a check on his wisdom, we also decided to sample a famous local competitor he hadn't mentioned. This article on India House, Lou Malnati's & Giordano's discusses, respectively, one of his recent recommendations, one of his past recommendations, and one place that he didn't recommend.
"Best ever" aren't words we use often, but if we were asked to name the location of the best Indian meal we've ever eaten - and we've eaten a lot of Indian food, including meals in multiple countries and at virtually every such restaurant in Buffalo - we'd point to Chicago's India House as that place. Simply put, the food at India House was so impressive that the dipping sauce included with a basket of Naan bread was better than the sauces that most restaurants use to prepare their entrees; in fact, we were talking about making a second visit before we'd even finished our first.
The marketing concept behind "royal Indian cuisine," as served at places such as WNY's Tandoori, has been to suggest that there is a distinction between plain Indian food and that which is higher class. Yes, there is such a distinction, and it's not merely in the decor or pricing of the restaurants, but in the ingredients, variety, preparation and presentation of the dishes. Yet such class-based marketing fails when, as at the local Kabab & Curry, less pretentiously proffered food is actually better-tasting than the supposedly "royal" offerings. India House puts the royal back in royal Indian cuisine. The place looks and feels like a high-class Indian restaurant, with multiple servers for each table, elegant tableware, and a massive menu packed with choices: 14 different types of bread, plenty of shrimp, lobster, and crab dishes, and a number of sauces that you don't just find at every Indian restaurant. Those sauces - we'll refrain from calling any of them curries, lest we trigger the typical knee-jerk reaction against the word - are as key to the Indian dining experience as Frank's Hot Sauce or a good barbecue baste are to chicken wings. Great sauce can make a meal, and bad sauce can ruin one.
India House's sauces are spectacular. The aforementioned free basket of sliced, pita-like plain Naan bread came with an orange-colored makhani dipping sauce that was unquestionably the best we've ever had, with bits of fresh tomato, ginger, and onion mixed with the yogurt and butter base. We saved enough to use on our Khurmi Naan ($4.50), larger slices of the same flat bread that was served hot and stuffed with obviously fresh, thin slices of tomato, plus garlic and chili - all to wonderful effect. Four dipping sauces, including spicy Achar pickles and the typical mint, mango, and plum chutneys, were all fresh and delicious, but we kept going back to the bowl of makhani. It was just that great.
To continue on the topic of sauces, we sampled two entrees: the Chicken Chilli Masala ($17) was a rare green chili-enhanced version of the far more common Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish that can be found at almost any Indian restaurant. Similarly orange in color, the Chilli Masala sauce was flecked with fresh cilantro and peppers, spicy without being overbearing, and generously populated with chunks of fresh, lean chicken breast meat. We loved it; the sauce served meatless with a bowl of India House's slightly buttery, high-quality Basmati Rice would have been enough to satisfy us on most occasions. Another entree, the Lamb Achari ($18), was spicier - its brownish red sauce was based upon mustard, tumeric, garlic and red chilis, served with a sliced scallion and bits of cilantro on top. It was equally delicious, made more for spice fiends than fans of bland sauces.
Another highlight was the Bhelpuri ($5.50), a nearly room temperature noodle salad of sorts that was hidden in a section of the menu called Bombay Street Fare. This plate of crispy puffed rice was stacked high, served with chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and a spicy, citrus-ish tamarind, cumin, and chili sauce. Light and cool, the Bhelpuri tasted like an Indian version of the Thai Mee Krob, simultaneously naughty and nice; given that it preceded dishes with heavy sauces, it was the perfect Indian appetizer if ever we've tasted one.
By comparison, the two India House desserts we tried were fine rather than special; the sweet cheese Rasmalai ($4) consisted of two generously proportioned coin-like patties in a typically sugary milk syrup, and the Kheer rice pudding ($4) was a standard mix of rice and a similar syrup, though with too little rice. Had we to do it over again, we'd skip the desserts in favor of another entree. Next time, we shall. We won't rate India House for the time being because the menu's way too big to effectively sample on one visit, but we'd call our first experience here very close to outstanding - even better than we'd expected based on our friend's strong recommendation.
That brings us to Lou Malnati's and Giordano's, two of Chicago's many well-known pizzerias. Frequent Buffalo Chow readers may recall our previous discussion of Lou Malnati's, which as we noted had "helped [to] change our perspective on pizza forever." It was a trip to Malnati's with this same friend years ago that taught us how some pizzas didn't need optional toppings when they were made with excellent core ingredients - crust, sauce, and cheese - and showed definitively that the proportions and arrangement of these three items could completely transform a plain or even awful pizza concept into an outstanding one.
On this visit to Chicago, we revisited Lou Malnati's (439 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60016, 312.828.9800), had another memorable deep dish pizza ($16.40) there, and spent some time dissecting a slice to learn its secrets. The crust's outer edge was around an inch tall, with around a quarter-inch of bottom dough that was half soaked through with olive oil and butter - the elements that helped give it a crispy, unburnt texture and a rich flavor. Malnati's sells a version with an even more buttery crust for those who are willing to take the coronary risk. On top of the crust was a moderate layer of gooey but obviously very fresh Mozzarella cheese, completely covering the dough and tucked into the edge of the crust so that sauce wouldn't seep through. A zesty, slightly spicy tomato sauce made with chunky Roma tomatoes was above the cheese, mixed with the pepperoni and onions we'd ordered. Most bites, we were too busy enjoying the crust, cheese, and sauce to even notice the toppings, but the pepperoni was strong, fresh, and copious, forming nearly a full layer on top of the cheese; the onions were small, white, and all but invisible to the tongue. We continue to think of Lou Malnati's pizza as the definitive Chicago deep dish, and would come back any time.
Yet it wasn't the visit to Malnati's that was interesting to us on this occasion; rather, it was our decision to try a competing place - the even larger chain Giordano's - that helped us understand just how important a good recommendation really is. We'd canvassed the Internet looking for competing alternatives, and come across Giordano's (730 N. Rush St., Chicago, IL 60611, 312.951.0747), a place where the walls were decorated with the names of celebrities and politicians who had dined there. With only a moderate crowd when we arrived, our server quoted us a 45-minute wait from the time of our order for the "famous Stuffed Pizza" ($17.25) to be delivered. That was longer than the 30 minutes required by Malnati's, but we didn't mind a bit - quality food is worth waiting for - and we were pleased when Giordano's pizza showed up 10 minutes earlier than expected. We'd ordered it with the same ingredients as at Malnati's, hoping to find that we'd be even more impressed.
But we weren't. Giordano's had the same basic formula for its pizza, only with a taller 1.5" crust edge, and lots more Mozzarella cheese - so much, in fact, that the pizza tasted as if someone had dropped one or two whole bricks of cheese on top of the dough. The crust was closer to plain bread, brittle on the edge, with little if any butter taste. Similarly, the sauce was nothing special, and neither were the pepperoni slices, which were surprisingly hard to find and bland whenever we did discover them. By comparison, there were many more onions, though as with the ones at Lou Malnati's, they added too little to the taste. On most bites, we felt as if we were eating a cheese and tomato sandwich, rather than a pizza.
Beyond "trust smart friends and expert recommendations," the lesson of this visit was clear: the same general ingredients that worked at one place flopped at another due to different proportions, apparent freshness, and preparation. That said, perhaps they hadn't really flopped; as we exited the place, there was a long wait for tables, and as comparatively plain as we felt the "famous" stuffed pizza was, something was clearly drawing people in. Marketing? A version that's good enough for the masses? Or something else? You can decide for yourself. We're just glad to have friends who know their stuff, and thrilled to be able to share our discoveries with you.