Offering an idiosyncratic, modern take on traditional Indian cuisine, Mango Pickle Chicago scores points for its successful interpretations, creative garnishes and flavorful food – just the way Indians like it
By: Soumya Jain Agarwal
Posted on: July 9, 2019
LF Says: ★★★.5
“Asafetida and curry leaves,” pat came the reply when I asked Chef Marisa Paolillo which Indian ingredient inspired the most creativity out of her. And, as an Indian, it made sense! These two uniquely Indian ingredients are not used in any other cuisine in the world! My wonder, and respect, for Chef Marisa increased.
An Italian by heritage, Chef Marisa opened Mango Pickle, a modern Indian restaurant, in north Chicago in 2016. A true labor of love and much R&D, the food at the restaurant was entirely unexpected by me. I went to criticize, and came out an ardent fan.
Walking on the Broadway Street in Edgewater, Chicago, you might just miss the restaurant if you are not looking for it. So keep your eyes focused. Inside, the restaurant is small, but has enough Indian touches to bring forth the nostalgia. A frame of all the current blockbuster Bollywood actors when they were in their younger years, a wall displaying colorful zari saris, and another wall displaying buttons with (objectionable) Hindi words….these elements did hold our attention.
The restaurant is slowly moving from an a la carte menu to a prix-fixe menu style – which the restaurant plans to change every week. And that’s what we chose – a seven-course fixed vegetarian menu.
Beginnings of Mango Pickle Chicago
The Paneer Pop simply melted in our mouth. The soft paneer (cottage cheese) covered by a crunchy layer and accompanied with cilantro chutney, was a perfect beginning to our meal. It was a simple Indian appetizer I hadn’t had in years – something I had stopped expecting from Chicago. For my husband, it was the beginnings of the perfect seduction. We started looking forward to the subsequent courses.
Not a chef by education, but by experience, Chef Marisa lived in India for nine years with her Indian husband, Nakul Patel, who is also a partner in Mango Pickle Chicago. It was when she moved there that she started working on her ambition of becoming a chef. Her short tenure with Chef Alex Sanchez at The Table, a California style restaurant in Mumbai, opened her eyes to the business of cooking. She even started her own catering business while in Mumbai. And when it was time to come back to Chicago, Chef Marisa followed suit on her dream of opening a restaurant.
The Unwrapped Samosa was what had propelled me to come to Mango Pickle Chicago in the first place. This ubiquitous dish, available everywhere, in every form – even frozen, is one of the most recognizable icons of Indian cuisine. So much so, that my Microsoft Word program is not redlining it like it does to most Indian terms! Many are very emotional about it too. And very cleverly, Chef Marisa has kept the taste of the original samosa intact – even better than most versions available in America.
It is, literally, an unwrapped samosa, where a piece of the fried, crunchy pastry dough is placed over a bed of red-colored date chutney, and the potato masala is spread over the dough, instead of having it wrapped inside the conical shaped dough. It is an open samosa. And the zesty masala took me back home!
Creation & Challenges
Starting an Indian restaurant was not a conscious choice for Chef Marisa. “Indian cooking was a part of life. It was everywhere. Everybody was cooking it – family, friends, colleagues. I took it for granted. I wasn’t paying attention at first,” she said. But when they started looking for a location for the restaurant while creating a concept, an idea started to form in her mind. For her, the cuisine had to be modern. “It had to be a craft, an art. It had to have some element of differentiating from others,” she says. And then, it seemed perfect to create something from the nine years Chef Marisa had spent in India.
Mango Pickle Chicago has been distinguished as ‘Bib Gourmand’ by Michelin – a distinction given to new restaurants by the guide. And sure enough, the restaurant is run almost like a Michelin star restaurant. Cutlery is changed after every course. Dishes are served individually (not family style), and plated nicely.
Moving on to main course, the server placed a bowl of Idli (rice and lentil cake), served with lemon rasam (a lentil preparation) and peanut chutney. The idli was unusually crunchy from the top – which I simply loved – and the rasam was indeed tangy. The grainy peanut chutney balanced out the flavors while giving some added textural play to the whole dish. It was an incredible modern rendition of a heart-warming dish that I thoroughly love in its original form.
Reformulating Indian food as per her style and individuality, Chef Marisa has indeed developed a new facet of the centuries-old cuisine. But she has faced many challenges to pilot Mango Pickle Chicago as well. One of them being her non-Indian identity. “It is difficult because I don’t have a long history with it [Indian cuisine], but it is also liberating because I am not looking at it from a traditional way,” she said. “I learn the essence of a dish – it has to taste Indian – but without the guilt of not following the recipe to the hilt.”
Another challenge she faces is hiring adaptable chefs for her kitchen. Indian sous chefs find it a tad bit difficult to create Indian food, which is different from what they have been making all their life. On the other hand, it is a challenge to teach the essence of Indian cuisine to western chefs who haven’t dealt with Indian fare before. “Western chefs have to be open to rethink techniques,” says Chef Marisa, as she gives an example of how knife work is rugged in Indian gastronomy, with most of the attention being on layering the flavors delicately.
One complaint that I have always had with Indian restaurants in Chicago is that they all offer pretty much the same menu. Considering the depth and diversity of India, there is surely much more that restaurateurs can serve! The next dish on our table abated that complaint of mine. It was Spring Vegetable Khichdi. One of the most humble dishes of India, made in different forms around the country, this is one dish which you will NOT find in any restaurant. But Chef Marisa gives it a beautiful twist with asparagus and snap peas, served with, well, mango pickle. Khichdi is made with moong dal (lentil), which cooks more quickly than other dals. So it’s quite hard to make sure that the moong dal doesn’t puree so much. In Chef Marisa’s khichdi, however, each grain of dal was intact – cooked, but not mashed. It had a generous taste of ginger, cloves and other spices, giving this simple dish a little more depth.
The Final Deal
Creativity is combined with sustainability in Chef Marisa’s kitchen. In general, there are many Indian ingredients that don’t taste the same in America, or don’t give the same result as they do in India. Chef Marisa rightly points out that because of the variation in soil and environment, ingredients don’t behave the same. So the bubbling chef added another aspect to her contemporary cuisine. She first assesses what texture, color and flavor she needs for a particular dish, and then searches for local ingredients which can be used for the desired effect. You’d never guess it, but the date chutney in Chef Marisa’s recipes has hibiscus in it instead of tamarind! She wanted the same tanginess, same texture, but with a popping red color, and so the exchange.
“It’s not all about innovating, it’s also about having fun with an ingredient,” says Chef Marisa. “I call it working fluidly. Innovation seems to be a more masculine word to me. But ‘fluidity’ is more feminine,” she explains.
We still had to plow through two desserts. And the first one was not only a unique concept, but also an easy dessert for our full stomach. Sorbet & Soda was a layered composition between orange soda, Campari and flamed meringue. Mix and swirl it, and it becomes a wonderfully refreshing drink. The second dessert was a sin. Pot de Crème meant a layer of thick dark chocolate ganache, topped with a scoop of banana brulee and garnished with crumbled sandesh (a famous East Indian dessert). Each bite was a perfect blend of dark and light, sweet and bitter, and dense and fluff. It was a wonderfully devised, balanced creation, and we couldn’t have enough of it.
The restaurant has a creative drinks menu where popular cocktails are strategized with Indian flavors – such as Tulsi-infused Gin & Tonic, Desi Margarita with Cashew Feni and Kashmiri chili, and Bollywood Old Fashioned with Chai spices. My friends who chose the non-vegetarian menu found the Chicken Chettinad to be aromatic with delicious flavors – spicy, but not hot. The Lobster Malai Curry had a velvety texture with a wonderful blend of coconut. And the Lamb Chop was simply outstanding with its kick of black pepper jus.
But what does the Chef herself like? “I love all the Indian flatbreads – the way they make it with so many different flours – like the use of bajra (pearl millet) in villages. I love all the lamb dishes. The cuisine handles non-vegetarian dishes very well with the spices. But if there is one dish I definitely go for when dining at other Indian restaurants – it’s Baingan Bharta.
And I served my heart on a silver platter to this endearing, audacious Chef.
LF Says: ★★★.5
Coordinates: 5842 N Broadway, Chicago, IL, USA