Executive chef Sujan Sarkar of the West Loop’s Rooh wants to change the common perception of what it means to dine in an Indian restaurant in America. With international cooking experience and accolades (like Times Chef of the Year in India), he seems to be just the man for the job.
“Indian food is not on [the top of diners’] priority list. It’s at No. 5 or 6 and, I’m not saying they think it’s cheap, but it’s not expensive,” said Sarkar, who is at the helm of Baar Baar in New York City and restaurants called Rooh in San Francisco and his native India.
He’s cooked all over the world, including his work in London (Automat, Almada, Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows) and later in Dubai, where he opened the Indian concept Tresind.
Sarkar grew up in Kolkata (his father was an agriculturist who worked closely with farmers) and was formally trained as a chef in European cuisine and techniques. After dabbling in Indian pop-ups he decided it was time to return to India in 2013. “I understood the flavor, my childhood memories, but that’s not enough. You have to go out there and understand it better.
“My cooking is so versatile, I now call it freestyle Indian or international Indian,” said Sarkar of pan-Indian cuisine. “I do Indian food, the flavors, idea, story, everything’s Indian but the ingredients I try to pick up from where we are opening. That’s why we are more progressive.”
With Rooh in New Dehli, Sarkar travels often to a rapidly progressing India with changing eating habits, trends and evolution.
“It’s modern, it’s new India,” said Sarkar. “There’s no pictures of elephants or the Taj Mahal or anything. We are now talking about India-ness, I want to part of that moment, I don’t want to be left out!”
Rooh anchors the east end of Randolph’s Restaurant Row. It’s chic and modern, with touches of opulence: chandeliers, plush velvet booths, marble tables and original imported artwork from India. Each of the two floors has a significantly sized bar dedicated to a thoughtful cocktail program.
Sarkar’s vision of bringing this modern version of India intrigued investor Manish Mallick, who experienced Rooh in San Francisco and wanted to bring it to his hometown of Chicago.
Mumbai-born Mallick left India in 1995 but frequently returned, taking note of its evolution.
“It has been rising, it has been progressing,” said co-owner Mallick. When he moved to Chicago in 2008, “I went to Devon Street and it felt like home. Twenty years later it doesn’t feel like home because home has progressed drastically, the culinary experiences there are amazing! Chicago never experienced that so it was my personal desire to bring that experience here.”
Rooh means “soul” or “spirit.” The first Rooh was opened in San Francisco in 2016. Baar Baar (meaning again and again) is an Indian gastro-pub in New York City that opened in 2018. Sarkar lives in Chicago now and plans to stay a while to make sure the restaurant meets his exacting standards. Chef de cuisine is Sahil Sethi, who has an esteemed resume, notably having worked at NOMA in Copenhagen.
“Indian food is very complex but it’s not complicated,” said Sarkar. “I’m using the flavors, idea and story. Indian food is also about memory, nothing else. There is no set rule. You’re getting all the authentic flavors, as close as possible to what you’d get in India, but then again the ingredients are new. Not all, but at least we are trying to get new things.”
The elevated menu features artfully crafted plates of familiar Indian dishes with a twist — whether by incorporating local ingredients or employing modern cooking techniques.
Koliwada is usually a fried fish snack but at Rooh, local cauliflower is used instead, served with curd rice mousse and thecha (a mixture of green chillis, garlic, peanuts and coriander).
Makhani paneer takes on the clever shape of a pinwheel after being flattened into sheets instead of the usual cube form, made with red pepper makhani (butter gravy), fenugreek, butter powder and peperoncino.
The gunpowder (spicy chili mix) scallop is seared and served with sweetcorn and uni curry and podi (chutney powder) masala. Flavorful, grilled Achari monkfish with Kerala Alleppey curry is served with kadambuttu (steamed rice balls).
“I think Chicago is amazing,” said Sarkar, “And trust me, this is the starting point. We’ll take this forward.”
Check out Rooh’s celebration of Diwali, “Festival of Lights,” with an exclusive, ticketed tasting menu on Oct. 27. This menu will feature four courses at $85 per person (inclusive of taxes and gratuity).
Rooh is located at 736 W. Randolph St. Call (312) 267-2323 or visit www.roohchicago.com
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