Bengalis love their fish. Situated on the Ganges Delta, the world's largest, where several rivers spill into the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam are home to a plenitude of freshwater edible species. Their consumption is inextricably tied to the identity of the people who live in the region. In a paper on the subject, food writer Colleen Sen quotes a famous proverb: "Machhe bhate bangali," or "Fish and rice make a Bengali."
In Chicago that's been quietly evident for years from the presence of a handful of small shops on and around Devon Avenue that stock freezers full of imported fish with names like hilsa, kajoli, boal, mrigal, and koral. So it's a wonder that a Bengali regional restaurant hasn't opened before now. That was remedied last month when Sayeed Ahmed launched Mithai Restora, a Devon Avenue buffet specializing in the two things Bengalis love most: fish and sweets.
Ahmed, who hails from the Bangladeshi city of Sylhet, is the former owner of Lakeview's late Radhuni Indian Kitchen, which identified as Bangladeshi but featured only a few dishes from the cuisine, instead trafficking mostly in the typical northern Indian and Pakistani food common all over the city. At Mithai, he's taken advantage of Chicago's—the state's, really—Bengali vacuum by recruiting an experienced chef from New York, Shaker Ahmed (no relation), to cook anywhere from a dozen to 15 different items each day. They're displayed "New York cafe style," as Ahmed describes it, meaning they're kept in a cold case, under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and reheated to order in a microwave.
The piercing ping of a microwave might trigger unappetizing Pavlovian responses in many eaters, but these rich, soulful curries, prepared with aromatic Baghabari-brand ghee, somehow take to the treatment, deepening in flavor as their spices harmonize over a few hours in the cooler.
Ahmed's fish preparations rotate daily. One day you might find small, sardinelike hilsa, the national fish of Bangladesh, panfried and then cooked in an onion and tomato base. On another day, they're cooked whole in a mustard-seed curry. Either way, take your time picking out the bones and you'll be rewarded by deeply flavored flesh. Similarly flavorful, tiny kajoli almost look like they're schooling with peppers and long slivers of potato in a bright, almost creamy curry the color of the sun.
Sometimes he'll put out giant, lobsterlike freshwater prawns with a sweet crustacean essence that dominates the thick brown sauce even if their flesh does suffer from the heat of the microwave, or moist, catfishlike tengra that falls off the bone but still stands up to its own vibrant curry.
It's not all fish. Ahmed turns out chicken, beef, and bone-in goat curries, which like the seafood options swim in a preponderance of thick, savory sauce. To tackle those you'll need a heaping pile of rice—there are a half-dozen variants on offer, including a goat biryani made from a fragrant Bengali grain called kalijira, light and shorter than basmati, which also serves as a platform for the aforementioned hilsa.
There are some uncommon small bites too, including beef liver samosas called kolija shingara, spiced gently but still potent enough to temper the organ's iron-rich intensity. Vegetable samosas are more in line with the common potato-and-pea variety but conceal a surprise in the form of peanuts. Fuchka, otherwise known as pani puri, are crispy orbs of flour stuffed with potato, dal, chiles, onions, and cilantro, dressed with a tangy tamarind sauce. Chotpoti are sweet-and-sour chickpeas with grated hard-boiled egg on top, while moglai parata is a thin crispy crepe stuffed with egg and chicken.
This is only half the arsenal at Mithai, whose name in Hindi means "sweets." To handle that end of the business Ahmed has recruited a confectioner from New York who produces a variety of dense, sugary treats, many made with a kind of farmer cheese called chhana, like the syrup-soaked semolina dumpling rasgulla or the rasmalai, cardamom-spiked paneer soaked in cream. If you find your teeth cracking at any of these options, the lightly sweet and tangy cinnamon-scented yogurt mishti doi is a good alternative, and an ideal probiotic remedy for anyone overindulging in the rich, spicy curries teeming with fish from the waters of Bengal. vCorrection note: This review has been amended to reflect the correct geography of the Ganges Delta and a Bengali preference for freshwater fish.