After 20 years, founder Rohini Dey makes a major change to her River North restaurant
Vermilion founder Rohini Dey has found a new purpose with Let’s Talk Womxn, bringing together entrepreneurs from 13 different cities all over the country to discuss best practices for women and working mothers in the restaurant world. Later this month, the group will tackle restaurant surcharges and how to implement them properly so customers and employees can better understand their purpose.
While Dey is building out a network, she hasn’t neglected Vermilion, the Indian and Latin fusion restaurant that opened in 2003 on Hubbard Street in River North; it eventually begot a New York location. Dey’s mission was to “spread the gospel of Indian cuisine.” She is an avid traveler who’s visited 55 countries and grew up in New Delhi: “I still think our cuisine is second to none,” Dey says.
But as Vermilion approaches two decades in Chicago, the landscape for Indian cuisine has changed. Certainly, chefs like the late Floyd Cardoz impacted the scene, but now Indian restaurants are receiving critical acclaim like James Beard awards and Michelin stars. It’s a change as South Asian restaurants are used to watching critics fawn over other Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. The sudden attention on South Asian food has been so great that Chicago magazine even did a mini investigation on chef Sujan Sarkar at Indienne, the fine dining restaurant (also in River North) that opened late last year. After years of ignoring these chefs, now critics are doing background checks on resumes.
With new Indian restaurants like Indienne and Bar Goa — yes, also on Hubbard Street (watch out or folks are going to mistake it for Devon) — opening, Dey feels Vermilion needs to evolve after 19 years in business. In December, she began tinkering with new ideas, and later this month, Vermilion’s Latin fusion menu, which featured Dey’s favorites like tandoori skirt steak, will be history. Dey says that Sunday, February 5 will be the menu’s final day.
Dey wants to introduce Chicagoans to “the best-kept secret for anyone who’s not Indian.” Vermilion is unveiling an Indo Chinese menu that, in a nutshell, features Indianized versions of Chinese dishes. The flavors rely on what Dey calls the holy trinity: soy sauce, vinegar, and chili. Instead of a numbing Sichuan mala, think about the intensity of mirchi.
Dey recalls growing up in Delhi where the restaurants typically offered three menus: The “normal” Indian menu, an Indo Chinese version, and a continental — the latter refers to Western cuisine. Indo Chinese cuisine is just part of life in India: “It’s comfort food for Indians,” Dey says.
Indo Chinese cuisine has popped up on some South Asian menus, mostly with dishes like Manchurian, which has nothing to do with the area in Northeast China. Indo Chinese is a genre that doesn’t really celebrate authenticity, but Indians also never claimed it did, Dey says. It’s an Indian fritter, deep-fried and battered cauliflower or chicken that’s amped up with soy sauce. Chicken 65, fried chicken fritters with a sweet and sticky glaze — perhaps akin to General Tso’s — is another appetizer that’s gaining popularity.
But for the Chicago area, the only place that focuses on Indo Chinese cuisine is in Northwest suburban Hoffman Estates where the India House chain opened Bombay Chopsticks: “It’s not really made it to the mainstream,” Dey says.
Vermilion’s menu is being finalized. Look for dishes like a rasam combined with hot and sour soup; black squid ink rice noodles with shrimp squid, black mushrooms, and oyster sauce; Hakka chow mein (spicy stir-fried rice noodles with veggies and a choice of egg, chicken, shrimp, or beef).
Dey tends to be direct with names for her dishes — she’s calling the squid ink noodles dish “Squid Games,” and a dessert — a fried ice cream ball spiced with star anise and cardamom with a saffron coconut crumble — will be simply called “Sex.” It’s a nod to China and India being the two countries with the largest populations.
The space will see a light decor refresh. Dey says she likes how the two nations use red and gold and wants to highlight the colors in the interior. The last time Vermilion had a remodel was in 2020.
Vermilion has seen a lot through its 18 years. Famous author Salman Rushdie was once an investor, and the New York location, which has been gone since 2018, helped grow the restaurant’s reputation — for better or worse. Dey wants Vermilion to be part of her culture’s culinary renaissance in America.
“Chicago is flourishing when it comes to Indian cuisines, and that’s lovely to see,” she says.
Vermilion, 10 W. Hubbard Street, Indo-Chinese menu to launch, Friday, February 10.