Back in 2009, when Kama Bistro opened its doors in suburban LaGrange, there were some who thought the Indian restaurant’s name was too sensual. Their only frame of reference was the Kama Sutra.
For those whose minds don’t reside in the gutter, “kama” is also about love, and any confusion has disappeared over the last 14 years as Vikram and Agnes Singh have raised the bar for Indian food in the Western Suburbs. In mid-August, the team plans to open their second restaurant and the first in Chicago, coming to Wicker Park at 1560 N. Milwaukee Avenue inside the former Wynwood Kitchen & Spirits.
Kama will offer a smaller menu compared to the original 170-seat suburban restaurant; the Chicago location has a tinier kitchen and about 70 seats. They’ll offer a full bar with serious cocktails — a mango martini uses mango chutney. Another, Smokin’ Berries, uses a berry chutney.
Singh, a native of New Delhi, calls his restaurant “Indian-influenced Americana.” While customers will find meats from the tandoor and traditional North Indian fare like rogan josh, Kama also serves tacos (in tortillas, not paratha or another Indian flatbread; Singh became enamored with Mexican food while living in Houston), beef ribeyes (steaks need more than salt and pepper, Singh reasons), and sometimes baby back ribs (they’re a beloved special). Seafood options like sea bass and lobster bisque are also on the menu. A ravioli uses makhani (the sauce used for butter chicken) instead of marinara or red sauce. Kama has even expanded its vegan options, substituting ghee for olive oil to make items dairy free. A roasted cauliflower will make vegans and vegetarians happy, Singh says.
Most chefs will scowl when hearing the word “fusion,” and count Singh in that group. India is full of cultures. The colonization of Goa brought the Portuguese. In Bengal, there’s a huge Chinese influence. Of course, there’s the English who forced the locals’ hands into creating Anglo-Indian food. But Americans may not know in India’s southeast, Puducherry was a French colony and the French have often played a part in Indian cuisine in America. Indienne is a hot restaurant in Chicago’s River North that blends techniques. America’s elite chefs have credited Mumbai-born Floyd Cardoz with popularizing the philosophy at his New York restaurants.
In fact, Vikram Singh’s father, Manmohan Singh Banwait, was among the first cohort of Indian students who studied French techniques in the ‘60s while enrolled at the Pusa Institute of Technology. Though Vikram Singh arrived in America to enroll at Northwestern University to embark on a career in consulting, restaurants were in his blood: “It’s kind of a disease,” Singh says. “You can’t get away from it.”
And he couldn’t escape. Vikram Singh has participated in events like Baconfest, so some Chicagoans may be familiar with him. They also might be familiar with his brother. Jeet Singh opened Basant Indian restaurant in 2021 in North Center (they have a “healthy rivalry,” older brother Vikram says.) Chicago’s South Asian restaurant scene has blown up in recent years — Kama is within walking distance of the new location of Vajra and Cumin. That pleases Vikram Singh. When he arrived in America, he lamented that Indian restaurants weren’t up to his standard: “I think there’s no worse advertising for Indian food than a bad Indian restaurant,” Singh says. Sometimes he’d ask “Why does this restaurant even exist?”
The tale isn’t new. Immigrants used to food back home bristle when restaurant owners sub in canned ingredients or take cheaper routes to make food. If only diners in America knew how they enjoyed food back home! But Singh acknowledges if there’s room in Wicker Park for three marquee Indian restaurants (a fourth when counting Wazwan, south of Wicker Park’s Four Corners), there’s plenty of room for a variety of Indian restaurants in Chicago. While Ghareeb Narwaz may not win any culinary awards, the mini-chain with locations on Devon, near UIC, and another near DePaul University have established itself as one of the city’s premier places for a cheap and satisfying meal: “I survived on that when I was at Northwestern,” Singh says.
Look for more info on Kama as they prepare to open next month.
Kama, 1560 N. Milwaukee Avenue, slated for a mid-August opening.