With Cumin, chef Min Thapa defined Indian and Nepalese cuisine in Chicago. At Vajra, he’s throwing out the rule book.
A spread of the decadent dishes at Vajra, which opened recently in West Town. [Photography by Neil Burger]
It took me a long time to stray from my go-to Indian order of chicken tikka masala. It wasn’t that I disliked other dishes, but rather that I knew what I craved, and the order saved me from puzzling over the unknown.
But only a fool would limit themselves this way at Vajra, where executive chef Min Thapa has assembled an imaginative assortment of Indian and Nepalese fare that makes straying all too easy. Pungent, cumin-laced duck chhoela ($13), sweet lobster malabar curry ($34) and rich Denver venison ($34) roasted in the tandoor oven infuse familiar classics with high-end ingredients in mouthwatering ways.
The Nepal-born Thapa, who spent years helming Mt. Everest in Evanston before making waves as the opening chef at Cumin in 2010, credits success to his focus on freshly prepared organic ingredients, and techniques he developed over a lifetime in the kitchens that began with a gig as a dishwasher at a hotel in India. “If you are not satisfied with a dish, next time, I’ll make it better,” Thapa says simply.
He matter-of-factly walks me through the process of making the venison, which marinates overnight in a young papaya rub to tenderize the meat, along with the ginger-garlic paste and spice blends that fuel many of the dishes at Vajra. After it is hit with a second rub, the venison is placed in the tandoor oven, rendering it into a smoky, live-fired hank of just-charred meat ready to sop up the tableside pour of silky makhani sauce (also used in butter chicken) and be speared with a bite of asparagus. Tikka masala who?
From top: Vegetarian-friendly cashew korma; Vajra’s dining room.
It’s an intriguing menu to explore, starting with the samosa chaat ($8). Crisp wafers crown a mound of potato, mint-cilantro and tamarind chutneys; pomegranate kernels; crunchy sev; and fresh yogurt. As a starter, it’s both deliciously indulgent and bright on the palate. The duck chhoela is roasted in the tandoor to enrich the chile and cardamom notes that, in the end, are balanced with frisee and crispy slivers of beaten rice.
These bold flavors pair great with Vajra’s cocktails, spiked with flavors that captivate without overpowering. St. Elder elderflower liqueur and kiwi puree smoothly mingle in The Fields of Elysium ($14), but the sour pisco is just as present.
For a bit of a show, The Spiny Babler Nest ($16) is delivered via a smoke-filled decanter, which sends a waft of campfire cascading across the table, revealing a stiff blend of whisky, barrel-aged soju and spice-infused demerara syrup. The expansive but pricey wine list includes a few diamonds in the rough, if you know where to look. I enjoyed the recommended trusty, tannic 2016 Famille Perrin red blend ($48 per bottle). It worked seamlessly with the rest of our meal, which crescendoed with the coconut-tinged lobster malabar curry ($34). Thapa grates fresh coconut for a paste to avoid the thick sweetness of coconut cream, instead infusing the meat with cilantro, ginger, garlic, garam masala and a kiss of coconut. It was the only dish in which I wished there was another bump of spice, but a quick saute goes a long way in marrying all those flavors.
La Espalda del Matador is a rum-and-blackberry sipper.
Thapa has taken care that everyone has something to enjoy at Vajra. If you prefer the classics, they’re there, along with an adapted menu of gluten-free dishes and vegan options like the chickpea masala ($15) and spicy dal ($15). Vegetarian dishes like the matar paneer ($18), popping with fresh peas in a spicy tomato sauce, succeed nicely as well. We finished off the night with the gaajarka halva pudding ($8), warm and comforting and reminiscent of a carrot cake rendered to a porridge-like consistency. Cashews, sunflower seeds and a sprinkle of crushed pistachios studded each bite, making me all too ready to try something else new next time I come by.
1329 W. Chicago Ave.
Photography by: Neil Burger