Tucked into Lincoln Square's main pedestrian thoroughfare, Essence of India is in tune with the clean, safe, and family-friendly atmosphere of the neighborhood it's been in for years. It's the only Indian restaurant for blocks around, and I'd heard that it tends to play to the middle ground.
I think that's why I had never eaten there until now, even though I love Indian food and walk by all the time on my way to a film at the Davis or a fireside pint at The Grafton in winter. But I want to check my own potentially preconceived snobbery—I mean, are friendly and middle ground bad, necessarily? Authenticity and adventure are always at one's fingertips in Chicago, but still, I get it—sometimes you just want to walk off the El after a long day of work and head straight into a simple, comforting, 'Hey, we know you're an American; it's nice in here; come eat some butter chicken' kind of place.
First, a few things you can expect: you will help Essence of India pay Lincoln Avenue rent. It goes without saying it's a little pricier than some spots you find on Devon. Also, saying yes to the fluffy, cardamom-scented basmati rice will cost you extra ($3.95). Those are the immediately apparent cons, but the pros come in equal measure: the interior is bright and stylish, the service was attentive, there's a variety of Indian beer on the menu, and the smoky smell of the charcoal tandoor wafting out of the kitchen during dinner rush is mouthwatering.
The amuse-bouche to start with (top photo) is traditional, a basket of crisp wafer-thin lentil papad accompanied by a trio of chutneys. All three were delicious, although to varying degrees hesitant with the chili. While the onion had a kick, the sweet tamarind was reminiscent of barbecue sauce and the cilantro chutney was above all herb-forward.
Next came the vegetable pakoras ($3.95), a plate of piping-hot fried sliced potatoes, cauliflower florets, and spinach fritters. Encased in a deep golden lentil flour crust, the potatoes tasted, confusingly, like sweet doughnuts. The cauliflower fared better, but best was the spinach. The chopped greens were amazing: soft, chewy, greasy and dense with savory besan batter.
I have been trying to think of what to say about the shrimp coconut masala ($12.95). I've eaten this dish a number of times in various parts of the world, including in my own kitchen, but prior experience wasn't a touchstone for what I got at Essence. What I know is a deeply spiced, shrimp-studded tomato curry with a good glug of coconut milk added for richness. This sauce inverted those ratios and added what must have been heaping spoonfuls of sugar: the coconut milk was extremely sweet with a touch of citrus, creating an unfortunate piña colada effect that once recognized, couldn't be forgotten.
Tandoori chicken ($9.95) is my old stand-by, and I wasn't a bit disappointed with Essence's spot-on rendition of the clay oven-fired classic. The ruby-stained bone-in chicken delivered just the right amount of charred skin; warm chili, garlic and masala spices; and tender, juicy meat. I'd recommend wrapping hunks of it in the barely-charred whole-wheat roti ($1.95), dipping into the chutneys, and washing it all down with a bottle of Maharaja ($3.75).
At the end of the meal I decided the reason some people love Essence of India and others don't isn't about whether the food is good or bad. Because it's not bad. (Okay, well, the shrimp was baffling, but everything else seemed attentively prepared.) It's more philosophical than that. It's a question of whether Essence is authentic or Americanized. And if it's Americanized (which I'd say it is, at least to an extent), then it's really a question of how far you feel an international cuisine can go in adapting to its surrounding environment before it loses something important. That can really only be up to you.
For me, the next time I want my horizons stretched, you'll find me on Devon. But for a comfortable evening around Lincoln Square? I'll definitely be back for that chicken.