By Michael Nagrant
Despite the fact that condos are popping up in the West Loop like sightings of Britney Spears’ nether-region, the number of great restaurants hasn’t followed suit. Since Jerry Kleiner’s prescient Daniel Boone-like maneuvering in the late nineties there’s been a slow dribble of similar establishments such as Blackbird, Moto, Follia and, now, Sepia. Of course, great doesn’t have to mean haute, but most of the ethnic spots in the area feel like Grecian theme parks.
As a denizen of the West Loop, I’m jealous of a foodie mecca like Lincoln Square, which has three top Thai spots (Opart Thai, Spoon Thai, Thai Oscar), and seems to be the landing pad for every new chef-driven restaurant. Lincoln Square’s also a five-minute drive from Uptown’s little Vietnam, Albany Park’s Middle Eastern bazaar and Devon’s Pakistani and Indian fare. It’s enough to make a food writer move.
Despite the West Loop’s culinary shortcomings, though, I dig my ‘hood and its affordable proximity to the Loop. Chicago may be a land of tree-lined boulevards, Olmstead-designed parks and brick three-flats, but for me living here has always been more about reading the twinkling messages spelled out with the windows of the CNA building, scoring a glimpse of the broad ebony shoulders of the Sears Tower or a walk through the noirish confines of the gray stone heart of the LaSalle Street canyon.
So much to my palate’s delight, last week, on one of my night walks, I spotted an Indian and Pakistani spot, Village restaurant (310A South Canal), located in the basement of the Union Station parking garage four blocks from my condo. It was like a South Asian Edward Hopperesque mirage. The purple efflorescence from the garage lights casts a glow upon the plate-glass windows of the nearly empty restaurant, highlighting a lone brown-skinned proprietor hunkered over a counter intently watching a nattily dressed couple slurping spiced yellow lentils from a steaming bowl of daal.
The spot, open since June, is a sister restaurant to owner Mohammad Afzal’s well-regarded cabbie joint, Baba Palace. Unlike Baba’s utilitarian confines, Village had a quarry’s worth of granite tabletops and a handful of gold leaf-framed flower paintings that looked like they’d been copped from a Crowne Plaza hotel room.
I headed to Village the next night, and inquired whether the kitchen had a tandoor, the clay-lined super-hot oven that ensures a smoky caramelized sear on spiced meats and the crispy/pillowy dichotomy of great naan bread. Afzal assured me they did.
The restaurant’s chapli kebobs, or charcoal-fired Pakistani minced beef patties, were glistening golden discs studded with onion, garlic and ginger. They were less beefy than my standby version at Khan BBQ on Devon, but just as intensely aromatic and equally good. Indian standards like Chicken Makhni—butter chicken—was full of moist, preternaturally red shards of tandoori chicken bathed in a rich orange moat of cream and spice, and saag paneer was full of garden green creamy spinach and hunks of firm cheese curds.
Village isn’t for the dainty. The kebobs were borderline next-day-ass-searing spicy. Still, I prefer the aggressiveness, as the “dumbed down” fare served at other spots is rather bland. In fact the daal at Village was relatively tame. Afzal confirmed that this was one of his most popular dishes and was geared for “American palates.” He said because everything is prepared to order, you can ask for more spice in any dish. For folks who live and work in the Loop and don’t mind spice, this is probably one of the best spots south of Devon, and it’s a great cheap alternative to another Potbelly Wreck or Corner Bakery Club Panini.
One of the Greek spots in my hood that doesn’t fall into the theme-park demo is the Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop (322 South Halsted). Owned by the Manolakos family, this storefront mom-and-pop was founded in 1973 when patriarch Louie sold his nightclub business in Montreal and moved to Chicago.
Almost everything I’ve ever tasted in the shop from Louie’s gooey, airy, chocolate-meringue cookies to French-inspired Napoleons featuring lemon-kissed custard are excellent. Their baked spanakopita (which Louie learned to make from his cook at the nightclub) features a healthy bit of dill, and might be the best example of spinach pie in Chicago. If you’re throwing a party, skip the frozen pigs in a blanket and grab a sheet pan’s worth from the shop.
The real reason the bakery came to mind, though, is that this weekend I discovered they were serving Moustalevria, a traditional Greek grape pudding served to coincide with the wine harvest. I never seen this before. There’s a light sweetness from the residual sugar in the Zinfandel grapes used for the base, but there’s nothing else added to the mix, save some flour used as a thickener. Get on over if you want to try this unique treat—the Moustalevria is only available for next two weeks—or you’ll have to wait until the next harvest.