Ok, full disclosure: I am an Indian food amateur. I can admit that. Please don’t judge. I was not a very adventurous eater until recently in life, about the time I started eating a vegan diet, which was a couple of years ago. Since then, I have opened my taste buds up to all sorts of new (to me) flavors. Since broadening my dining horizons, I have discovered new ways to fall in love with food all over again. The newest object of my affection is Indian food.
Modern, upscale Indian food is truly a new thing for me. I have tried some fast food places that have come and gone from campus a few times over the years, and I liked the food, but I never really found myself going back. I had a hard time with the unfamiliar spice combinations, which are unique and a can be bit of an acquired taste, but once I got accustomed to them, I found myself with a renewed appreciation for Indian cuisine. So, with a very limited frame of reference, I decided to try my luck at reviewing one of the nicest new restaurants in town, The Himalayan Chimney.
With hopes of finding a new culinary crush, I met a friend of mine for lunch at The Himalayan Chimney. She knows her way around an Indian menu a bit, but I’m pretty much ignorant. That said, I would like to make it clear that my intention is to review this restaurant from the “person who knows nothing about Indian food” perspective. To that end, I will try to draw parallels between dishes I try for basically the first time, and food with which I am more familiar. Please do not be offended as I compare these wonderful Indian dishes to food from other cuisines. My goal is to communicate my experience with other people who are not very familiar with Indian food, to try to make it more accessible for the uninitiated.
The first impression upon entering the restaurant is “class.” This is a very elegant setting, with dark cherry wood high back chairs and neatly folded linen napkins at each place setting. The lighting is delicate and subdued, accented by sleek, low wattage, hanging light fixtures, which are sharply contrasted on a sunny day by bright natural sunlight streaming in from overhead sky lights. This juxtaposition of simple, understated elegance contrasted with the beaming, bright, natural iridescence, is an apt metaphor for the restaurant’s core accomplishment. They blend the traditional preparations of a very hearty, simple region of Indian cuisine, and they add an artistic flare to it, which highlights the use of spices common to the area. A meal at the Chimney is a bit of a respite from the everyday dining experience in town. The décor and upscale service, complimented by a very nicely stocked bar, are elegant and relaxing, without being too uptight.
The service matches the atmosphere; staff members are very professional and exceptionally courteous. We were spoken to with a smile throughout the entire meal, and the servers were very willing to answer all of our questions. Not only am I an Indian food rookie, but I am also vegan. My friend is vegan as well, so we made sure to ask a few questions before ordering, which could be annoying to some wait staff, but was not the case here. The server graciously told us she would discuss our options with the house chef, which she did, and then promptly returned to let us know what they recommended for vegan offerings. She also told us they are having new menus printed with the vegan items clearly marked in upcoming weeks, which I really appreciated hearing.
We started our meal with two appetizers: samosas ($3.99, pictured above) and lassoni gobi ($5.99). Both items were visually appealing and very tasty. The samosas were garnished with finely shredded carrots and a square ramekin of bright green mint chutney sauce. They weren’t greasy or deep-fried tasting, as the breading was crunchy on the outside but soft and delicate when bitten into. The filling was well spiced, with the peas and small bits of potato making for a nice texture contrast to the creamy potato filling. The mint chutney sauce, with its very prominent cilantro flavor, was the perfect complement to the slightly spicy potato filling, adding a cool, refreshing note to the complex spice combination. I have had samosas before, but they were more of the fast-food variety, no match for these hand-crafted delicacies.
The next appetizer, lassoni gobi, was absolutely fantastic. This is my new favorite appetizer — ever. Imagine General Tso meets cauliflower… lightly coated and fried cauliflower florets tossed in an unbelievably delicious chili sauce and garnished with vibrant, shredded carrots. The texture of the cauliflower was perfect, slightly crunchy and chewy, with a strong lingering flavor of garlic. This is a must try for anyone with taste buds. My friend called it the “ultimate comfort food…hot wings gone vegan!”
I don’t mean to diminish my praise for these dishes by comparing them to foods from other cuisines, but I am having a hard time finding language to describe these unique flavors. This is the struggle with trying new food sometimes; the spices are so different, the dish gets overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of something new challenging the palate. The Himalayan Chimney does a masterful job of presenting traditional Indian fare with a subtle, artistic touch, which makes them a great place for people like me, who are a bit intimidated ordering Indian food. Their website states, “We take utmost care in our preparation methods to ensure that the full originality of the aroma and fragrance of the spices are extracted and preserved. In every step from cooking to delivering fine food, quality is maintained.” They say it a lot better than I can. They use fairly simple ingredients, but allow the mastery of their cooking style and spice combinations to shine through.
This is the case with the mixed vegetable biryani ($9.99), one of the 3 entrees we sampled. We ordered this simple, satisfying rice dish without the yogurt-based raita, to keep it vegan. The dish consisted of steamed basmati rice, roasted cauliflower, onions, and green beans mixed with a very complex biryani masala spice blend. It bounced from a bit spicy to citrus-tinged, then strong cilantro, followed by a very rich, aromatic flavor from the toasted spices. It was spicy, sweet, and savory all at once. But it was also very light; the seasoning was not overwhelming, allowing the taste of the vegetables to mingle with the freshly squeezed lime and cilantro garnish, and to complement the nutty flavor of the basmati rice.
The entrées all came with a choice of basmati rice or naan. We asked to substitute roti, a vegan whole wheat falfbread, for the naan, and we also ordered some extra basmati rice. Both items were fabulous. The roti had a tender, slightly charred texture, and the basmati rice was wonderfully prepared and flavorful.
Our second entrée, bhindi dopyaza, was a blend of sautéed okra, onions, and tomato chunks tossed with cumin seeds and mango powder. This dish had a home style feel to it — nothing fancy, just really simple and gratifying. The okra was delicious, with a perfect, slightly crunchy texture, and not at all slimy like okra can be. The flavor of the light sauce was very unique, owing to the sweetness of the onion and tomato chunks mixed with the pungent cumin seeds and the background hint of mango. I find it hard to describe this dish because it tasted like nothing I have ever had before. I know this much: I plan to have it again very soon.
We also ordered an eggplant dish called baigan patyala ($10.99), which was equally impressive. The flash fried eggplant was meaty and unctuous; the sweet outer skin blended very well with the tangy sauce, which formed a wonderful, stew-like consistency once the eggplant were cut into. This dish was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The sauce was a rich, tangy glaze, with a pleasant balance of sweet and spicy notes, achieved through the combination of cashews, raisins, and fennel seeds. No specific flavor stood out, as all the spices and textures melded perfectly into a very tasty, well balanced dish.
After our meal, I asked one of the servers the story behind the name The Himalayan Chimney. He said it is very cold in that region, and the cuisine they serve at the restaurant is meant to represent the warm, comforting feeling from the chimney, which serves the dual purpose of heating their homes and cooking their meals. The chimney is a symbol of comfort.
Upon leaving, I noticed a small bowl with some seeds and a spoon in it, sitting on the host stand. I asked the host about them, and he told me they were toasted fennel seeds, meant to freshen the breath after a spicy meal. I helped myself to a small spoonful and I was again reminded of what makes The Himalayan Chimney such a delightful find: they understand the natural beauty of their ingredients, especially the simple elegance of their spices. Whether you are a seasoned Indian food connoisseur, or a rookie like me, I recommend taking the trip to this upscale, modern Indian restaurant, for a high quality, elegant meal served in a very pleasant atmosphere.
The Himalayan Chimney is located at 134 West Church Street, Champaign, and open daily for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Monday through Friday for dinner from 4:30 to 10 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday for dinner from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.