Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Newfound Place 'Tava' Fresh Taste of India

7172 Dempster, Morton Grove

It's certainly possible that I tasted, and enjoyed, Indian food before moving to Los Angeles in early 1990.

But even if so, I still trace my affinity for East Indian cuisine to a friendship I made soon after arriving in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley.

Although a cousin initially helped me get my bearings, I moved to LA on my own at age 21 without any friends, other family or acute job prospects.

Due to having worked as a bank teller in Evanston--my first job out of college despite having graduated magna cum laude in three years--I was able to land a similar gig at Union Bank of Encino within a week of arriving in California.

The best friend I made at the bank was an older, married Indian woman named Yashu. 

She didn't have a car so I would sometimes give her a ride home, upon which she would invariably invite me to have homemade supper with her and her husband, Harish.

Other than Naan and Roti--Indian breads--I cannot recall the names of foods that Yashu made me, which were all vegetarian since she was. But I always liked everything and still on many levels relish this wonderful indoctrination to a highly savory cuisine. (Indian food can be rather spicy, a bit beyond my comfort level, but I love it nonetheless.)

So since moving back to the Chicago area in 1993, I've eaten Indian food at least a few times each year, at a variety of places. When I lived in the western suburbs, I frequented Viceroy of India in Lombard, and now most often go to Himalayan in Niles for their lunch buffet. I don't often get to Little India along Devon Avenue in Chicago, but once when Yashu came to visit we went to a really good place there called Tiffin.

The Indian restaurant I chose to be part of my Chicago Dining World Tour--Tava, in a strip mall at the NE corner of Dempster and Harlem in Morton Grove--was largely prompted by stellar reviews on Yelp.

Before I get into what I ate, let me share that buffets are usually a much more economical way to enjoy Indian food--unless Yashu makes it for you--rather than ordering off the menu. Most Indian restaurants have lunch buffets for around $10, and though dinner buffets are rarer, Cuisine of India in Mt. Prospect has a good one.

But as I don't eat chicken due to allergy, and much prefer a lamb curry--such as Bhuna Gosht or Rogan Josh--to the goat meat often included on the Himalayan buffet, aside from the money aspect I prefer non-buffet Indian meals.

Still it's hard to justify paying three times as much to get what I really want--as I did at Tava, where prices were in line with what I've found elsewhere--rather than to partake of buffets given the value provided. Especially as, except for the entree, what I ordered and typically do (or similar items) can often be found on buffets.

So this type of Indian dining has become a relative rarity for me, but not only did I really enjoy it, I took home enough for a hearty second meal.

As usual--and everything except the entree is a pretty standard selection for me--I started with an order of Vegetable Samosas as an appetizer. These are, per the Tava menu: two generous, flaky, golden pastries stuffed with potatoes, green peas and mild herbs and spices.

Samosas are quite good nearly everywhere I've had them--though a good bit smaller when included on buffets--and the ones at Tava were terrific.

I like dipping my samosa into the sweet, purplish chutney, but a lightly spicy, green chutney is also provided.

Among other pleasures, Indian restaurants have largely been responsible for turning me onto mango flavoring, and so I ordered and savored a Mango Lassi (churned yogurt with mango, served chilled) as my beverage--along with a whole lot of water when my tongue started burning.

As mentioned above, my entree of choice is often a lamb curry. On Tava's menu, it is labeled simply as "Lamb Curry," but many places have both Rogan Josh and Bhuna Gosht. I can't tell you the difference or which I've enjoyed more; both basically mean "lamb curry" to me. (You can see how they're explained on the Viceroy of India menu.)

But rather than merrily having a little lamb, I ordered Kadai Paneer = Homemade paneer cheese, bell peppers, onions, tomato, ginger and garlic sauteed in olive oil with our chef's special blend of Indian spices.

Many Indian restaurants seem to have Mutter Paneer, which is cheese cubes with a bunch of peas, and Saag Paneer, which is largely spinach with some cheese cubes. I prefer the cheese cubes without the greenery, so Kadai Paneer was a treat not everywhere found (although Tava also has the others).

I don't know that Kadai Paneer is officially a curry, but its thick zesty sauce, cheese and vegetables are best enjoyed over Basmati rice, which without a buffet is an added cost.

As is the Naan (lightly leavened soft bread baked in a tandoor). I like--and ordered--Garlic Naan, which like all else I had at Tava, was really good. (According to the Tava menu, Roti, which Yashu often made, is unleavened whole wheat bread.)

Even with about half of the Kadai Paneer to take home, I wound up quite full, so I was not even tempted to order dessert. But on most buffets, I enjoy Gulub Jamun = golden-fried dough balls, soaked in sweet saffrom syrup, served hot and/or Desi Kheer = fragrant rice pudding with raisins and almonds.

I'm honestly not quite sure if Yashu and Harish are still living in California or have returned to India, as was their intent upon retirement.

But if she sees this, hopefully she'll be happy that I still love Indian food, and know that I'm happy that it's still largely because of her kindness and influence.

Heck, my latest Indian feast was even vegetarian in its entirety.

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