Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post! I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.
Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures. For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination. Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions. However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine. What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture. Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera. The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif. We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead. I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants. We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert. However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation. These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney. It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain. As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup. The frankie was great. It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side. It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste. Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India. The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick. These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter. I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation. Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors. First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip. As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad. As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage. Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background. This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy. Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty. Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went. Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella. It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest. Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry. However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella. Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well. It got even better when our desserts came. I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world. The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom. It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert. The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet. If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate. I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert. Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free. It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was. It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries. These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.
So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service. I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.