The ghee that chef Marisa Paolillo uses at her five-month-old restaurant Mango Pickle comes from a cow sanctuary in Gujarat where the residents feast on organic sugarcane and retire peacefully to the fields when they stop giving milk.
When it comes to her usage of the clarified butter, "I don't hold back on it," she says. It plays a marquee role on her daily vegetable and dal plate, where a glistening golden gob bejewels a serving of granular moth lentils, somehow transforming this drought-resistant high-protein legume into an agent of seduction. It's the reason her butter chicken masala has such an uncommonly silky mouthfeel. It's used to confit the garlic and ginger she uses in her saag paneer. And it's the source of the glow that emits from her pillowy, warm naan, which should serve as the vehicle for much of her food.
Behind a narrow Edgewater storefront space hung with colored lights and vividly dyed saris, where anatomized renderings of Mughal architecture gender the bathroom doors, Paolillo, who was born in Chicago, is offering a personal interpretation of the food of India's western coast from Gujarat to Goa, in the middle of which is Mumbai, where she lived for nine years with her husband and in-laws. Mango Pickle is part of a national—some would say international—movement in Indian food typified by restaurants like Houston's Pondicheri, New York's Paowalla, and Nashville's Chauhan Ale & Masala House, where chefs are going hard at regional and seasonal food and there isn't a culinary tradition that's not ripe for tweaking.
Paolillo did a lot of cooking during her time in India, particularly in a Western-style restaurant run by an American chef, but also with her in-laws, friends, and people she encountered on her travels up and down the west side of the subcontinent. When she returned to Chicago she spent three years cooking under Ashlee Aubin at Wood in Boystown. And when it came time to open her own restaurant, she put all that experience into expressing her own vision of how Indian food could be served in the midwest.
That vision involves almost crystallized spheres of crunchy pani puri filled with cool English-pea puree from which sweet pepper-and-garlic grilled shrimp poke out like the tail of a comma. It's conjured the smoky charcoal-fired eggplant-tomato dip baingan bharta, here garnished with roasted carrot halves and beet wedges, an arresting adjustment in texture for a typically homogenous dish. Something similar happens with her saag paneer, a finely rendered, incrementally spicy puree whose thickness is mitigated by pillows of fresh grilled cheese, bits of chopped almonds and cashews, and nuggets of roasted cauliflower and mushroom. It's a version that doesn't so much complicate an elemental dish familiar to anyone who's ever stepped into an all-you-can-eat northern-Indian buffet line as open it to the possibility of evolution.
Each week or two the restaurant goes through a Slagel Family Farm lamb, which turns up in a daily special—say, a cardamom-and-saffron-braised shank that leaves a trail of perfume as it makes its way across the dining room, served with roasted root vegetables like a proper Sunday roast. Or it could be ground and grilled and served as sliders on miniature pieces of naan with mustard, pickled ginger, and turmeric.
Paolillo has a thing for the large vegetable garnish. She oven-dries tomatoes, concentrating their weak off-season flavor, and uses them to adorn her butter chicken, recalling the sauce's tomatoes, which have been reduced and caramelized into something sorcerous in that voluptuous ghee. On a dish that in its Mughal-like bombast seems designed for Instagram greatness, a whole roasted purple eggplant is impaled upon a stack of fried chicken thighs prepared in the spirit of Chicken 65, the chile-saturated CFC (Chennai Fried Chicken).
Vegetables take the lead in the daily dal plate—rice, that buttery dal, and a mixture of whatever's at the market, according to Paolillo, on one occasion fresh green chickpeas, turmeric-stained potatoes, and snappy, sweet long beans. It's a dish so simple, pure, and affirming that you get to live an extra year just for eating it. Conversely, the chickpea-battered and deep-fried vegetable pakoras—clusters of crunchy onions, okra, potato-stuffed green chiles, and thin chiplike taro leaves—will having you swigging beer all the way to hell.
This irresistibly scarfable snack makes me suspect that Paolillo and company are sitting on a marketable spinoff in a cocktail concept. They're already running happy-hour snack specials like spiced lotus seeds, chile-lime marinated chicken wings, and the aforementioned shrimp puri "pop-ups."
It's rare that a dish's seasoning fails to strike a beautiful balance of bright, clear spice profiles, and this success extends to an array of cocktails that leans toward the restorative, like a bitterly refreshing negroni made with black-cardamom-infused gin, a sweetly mellow chai spice old-fashioned, or an exuberantly assertive gin and tonic. There are also a couple of cocktails mixed with feni, the cashew distillate that's India's answer to a nationally identified spirit like mezcal, vodka, or bourbon. A resolutely domestic beer and wine list flouts the convention that Indian restaurants are spiritually bound to pour Kingfisher and Sula Vineyards (no relation). But what's really compelling is the coffee and tea menu, which does feature imports: cardamom coffee from south India, herbal infusions made from rhododendron and tulsi (aka holy basil), black and green regional teas, and chai-bourbon collisions that I'd lean toward as a postprandial option over the stiff rosewater panna cotta or the balls of gulab jamun split, seared, and served with a too-sweet mango sauce.
Those two desserts are pretty much the only dishes I couldn't get behind on my visits to Mango Pickle. Maybe sweets are just set up to fail after such bold and nuanced beginnings. You might look at what Paolillo is doing as akin to Ileana Regan's food at Kitsune, where the midwestern garden and pantry get raided to make fundamentally solid Japanese food. Or you could look at it as its own brilliant expression of Indian food, neither shackled by tradition nor disrespectful of it. v