Raw Night at Arya Bhavan in Chicago
Arya Bhavan is just one of a fabulous jumble of Indian and Pakistani restaurants way, way, way north of Chicago's center, on a stretch of Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park. What made me notice Arya Bhavan among them?
Something called Raw Night.
Every Monday at Arya Bhavan, the buffet is stocked not with curries and samosas, but with fare that has never touched an oven rack or skillet. It's an Indian restaurant in all the other usual recognizable ways—warm taupe walls, instrumental Hindi-style music in the background, exotic decor—until you notice the sandwich board advertising a detox cleanse, or the kombucha and raw vegan avocado ice cream on the menu. The owner, Kirti Sheth, is a holistic foodie who started Raw Night a couple of years ago by popular demand. Everything at Arya Bhavan was already vegetarian, and much of it vegan, and when some of her customers said they were interested in a larger raw selection, Sheth happily obliged.
I was the first to arrive at 6:30 p.m.; the restaurant had just opened, and the buffet was mine to peruse. My friends ordered from the regular menu, which follows a more classic Indian trajectory with naan, dosa, rice dishes, dal, curries and the like, but I was committed. (Fair warning: the kitchen didn't seem very prepared to handle cooked orders, so I'd keep that in mind if you go on a Monday.)
Although buffet selections might vary, panning right to left on this particular evening, you had salads first: kale with shredded ginger, cabbage, sprouted legumes, turmeric-spiced cauliflower. Then came a few inventive dishes, which can only be explained using a lot of air quotes, like a raw "pizza" with an oat crust, cashew "cheese," sun-dried tomato "pizza sauce," and crunchy veggies. There were tiny "burritos" too: think a variety of vegetables wrapped in a collard leaf. There was a spiced savory vegetable "cake" that I liked enough to go back twice for more, consisting mostly of packed shredded carrots flecked with sunflower seeds. There was "hummus" of sprouted chickpeas (and little else; I couldn't detect any tahini or olive oil), and, in a launch into a different nation, a big bowl of guacamole accompanied by little tubs of fermented-cashew "sour cream."
If you are following any type of special diet whatsoever, I don't think you'll find a place friendlier than this. Sheth, who bounced around between taking orders, prepping food in the the kitchen and attending the buffet, readily answered all sorts of questions by other diners when they began to arrive, and by listening in I discovered that the raw buffet is also gluten-free, dairy-free, and meat-free.
On the down side, some of the dishes lacked the depth and range of flavor the restaurant's food is otherwise lauded for. Cooking, of course, was invented for this very reason, but I have seen raw food deliver where some of these dishes didn't. With the exception of that wonderful spicy carrot veggie cake, the "burrito" (which improved greatly when dipped in guacamole and cashew cream), the perfectly-seasoned sprouted lentil and bean salad, and—surprisingly enough—the satisfyingly chewy oat crust of the pizza, I found myself thinking too often, 'needs salt, too bitter, texture's off.' And it's pricy: $20 per person if you pay with a credit card, $18 with tax in cash.
By the end, I certainly felt virtuous—even dessert was light and healthy, consisting of unsweetened coconut and almond balls and a simple "pudding" made of blended ripe mangos. But I was looking longingly at the last bites of my companions' steaming, flavorful, rich curries, fragrant brown rice and garlic-crusted naan, feeling thankful for whoever first thought of putting food to a hot flame.