Did you know that you can patent a recipe in India? Me neither. But if you invent something delicious—say, unicorn tikka masala—and you don't want anyone biting your style, you can lock that goodness down. And yet apparently there are chefs who wouldn't dream of doing that, who believe their inspirations are gifts to humanity. That's how, according to legend, a guy named A.M. Buhari gave his Chicken 65 to the world. Buhari, who owned a hotel in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, which over the course of a half century or so blossomed into a small restaurant chain and banquet business, so believed in the genius of his fried chicken that he refused to patent it so that its brilliance might shine from sea to sea. He did, however, give it its name—"65"—for the year of its debut. That's one story, anyway, as told on the restaurant's own website, which reproduces a Wikipedia entry to establish its credibility.
While Chicken 65 isn't quite a household standard like, say, tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, or saag paneer, it has made it all the way from Chennai to Logan Square, specifically onto the menu at the Spice Room, a newish storefront Indian restaurant that fills a huge hole in the neighborhood's culinary firmament. Here Chicken 65 is an appetizer on a menu of mostly familiar dishes from the pan-Indian canon. Light-years removed from the southern-style crunch of the version at Edgewater's Mango Pickle, it features boneless chunks of bird steeped in a bath of potent compounds: ginger, garlic, chiles, turmeric, black peppercorns, fennel, cinnamon, and cumin. The pleasure of this Chicken 65 isn't its texture; it's the complexity of spicing that impacts your cerebral cortex like a meteor shower.
The Spice Room comes from veterans of Taylor Street's Taj Mahal and Humboldt Park's wonderful Rangoli, two restaurants that avoided the Indo-Pak scrum of Devon to find fans in far-flung neighborhoods. In concept and appearance, situated in the space evacuated by an unloved English pub, the Spice Room, with its bright, spare room with blond wood tables and purple-and-yellow banquettes, feels like it could be on Devon. The food is of a different order.
The Chinese-Indian mashup gobi Manchurian—breaded deep-fried cauliflower tossed in hot sauce, soy, capsicum, and scallions—is a sweet, crunchy crack that ought to be sold in movie theaters. Fresh emerald-green saag paneer is loaded with creamy lumps of cheese. Tender morsels of lamb braised low and slow lurk in a bagara curry rich with coconut and peanut.
Proteins seem to be of a relatively high quality at the Spice Room. In the haryali chicken even the bird's breast presents as silky and tender amid the intense flavors of green chile and cilantro. In the bhuna jinga, a garlicky dry-shrimp curry, sweet, fat crustaceans together act like a subcontinental shrimp de jonghe. Okra masala takes a similarly curious turn as a dry preparation, sweet with natural caramelization, in contrast to its soupy tomato-and-chickpea cousin. Meanwhile okra battered in chickpea flour and fried hard has all the elements of counterpoint to the aforementioned cauliflower theater snack.
The usual lineup of flatbreads are on hand to serve as delivery vehicles (the light lamb-stuffed keema naan is notable), and the similarly standard variety of pulavs and biryanis will overfulfill your daily rice requirement. About the only place the Spice Room goes off book is with its dainty lassis served in milk-bottle-shaped glass. The mango is thicker and fruitier than you might've encountered elsewhere.
The Spice Room's most redeeming quality is the consistent freshness and vibrancy of familiar dishes. Unlike Mango Pickle, there's no reinvention or fusion happening here. This is the same Indian menu you've seen hundreds of times. And yet its execution is at a level that would indeed stand out on Devon. Every neighborhood deserves an Indian restaurant like this. v