Red All Over: At Vermilion
When I call to make a reservation, a hostess picks up the phone and says, "Good afternoon, At Vermilion." This confuses me for a moment. It's a good afternoon at Vermilion? No, the restaurant is actually called "At Vermilion" for unfathomable reasons, making for tortured conversation like "I'll meet you at At Vermilion at eight." At Vermilion is an offshoot of the more sensibly named and popular Chicago restaurant, Vermilion. Rohini Dey is the owner and chef of both spots, and she has laudably assembled an all-female cast (the executive chef and the pastry chef are both women) to whip up a menu of Indian-Latin fusion.
Matters begin to disintegrate when you open the menu. It's a jumble of buzzwords—tapas! Tasting menu!—and blatant exotification, and the paragraph at the top of the menu actually made me squirm. Reading it, we learn that the word vermilion "connotes the essence and ebullience of the Indian and Latin American peoples." Not only that, but the restaurant is a "celebration of the beauty of women." Is this dinner or Oprah?
One night, I brought my parents-in-law, who are from Mumbai. They peered down their glasses at the menu. "So . . .," my father-in-law said, "this is some kind of fusion?" Indeed. The menu is composed of three categories: "Tapas: Latin-Indian small plates," "Signature Preparations: Dishes with an Indian-Latin confluence," and "Heat: Entrées from the Indian subcontinent, spice untamed." (Au contraire.) As we perused the wordy menu, the space echoed from our conversation. We were the only people in the 280-seat, two-level restaurant. Even when the room filled up a bit, the sense of coldness never went away, probably because At Vermilion resembles a fancy mall or a bank more than a restaurant. Surprisingly, vermilion, the color, itself is scarce, having been shunted aside in favor of potted palms, stainless steel, and white tables and chairs. You wish they had realized that strategically placed screens or textiles can make a large space feel intimate—or at least interesting (see: Morimoto).
Cocktails seemed necessary, so we each ordered one. This turned out to be the best part of the meal. The most inspired concoction is the pani puri margarita. Pani puri is the Indian snack that's composed of bite-sized fried breads called puris; you crack a hole in the top of the puri, spoon in some spiced potatoes and/or chickpeas, dunk it in chaat-masala-spiced water (pani), and then crunch the whole delicious mess down. The pani puri margarita does away with the fried-puri part; it's basically a quality margarita heavily seasoned with pungent chaat masala. The lime-tequila-chaat-masala combo turns out to be completely genius—tangy, funky, and spicy. It's fusion at its best.
The small plates, ironically enough, are served on gigantic white rectangular plates. The waitress delivers them, and then in a hushed voice tells you exactly what every squeeze-bottle dab of sauce is. This is the sort of place where they speak in reverent tones of the stripe of pomegranate molasses that runs artfully down the center of a plate, but which plays no role in the actual food on that plate. The most successful is the duck arepa, which features shredded-duck vindaloo—properly tangy and hot—on top of mini arepas (corn cakes). Then there's actual pani puri (sans tequila), the puris arranged forlornly on the mod plate, and a champagne flute full of the spiced water to dip them in. It looks pretty, but doesn't work very well. Artichoke pakoras ("Spain's thistle in Indian fritters," chirps the menu) are simply fried artichoke hearts, without the crispy batter that usually defines pakoras.
If you thought the small plates arrived on big plates, wait until you see the slabs carrying the main dishes. "It's like a game of tetris," one of us remarked, as the server tried to maneuver the enormous flat palettes, each one a landscape of empty white dotted with food molded into unnatural shapes. My father-in-law had ordered the caldeirada de peixe, a Brazilian seafood stew with an "Indian kick." On the slab in front of him was a space-agey, silver pod-like bowl. "It looks like it's going to take off," I said. "I thought this comes with rice," he said. Oh, it did—it's just that the rice was sitting about a foot away, on the corner of the white slab, and it was molded into a perfect, tiny, ridiculous cube.
The best of the entrées is the crab Konkani, a heavily spiced, mustard-seed-studded sauté of sweet crab, wrapped up in an Oaxacan crepe that's flavored with huitlacoche. The funkiness of the Mexican corn mushroom is very nice against the rich, sweet crab. It's served with a tiny molded cube of red quinoa, which you can disassemble and use to soak up the creamy, coconut-y sauce.
The restaurant's signature lobster Portuguese was a big disappointment, despite the fact that, as our server gravely informed us, it was ranked in USA Today as one of the best dishes in the U.S. The dish costs $34 and involves a single rock-lobster tail (rather than sweeter Maine lobster) napped with shockingly bland tomato-mustard-seed gravy and served over another little cube of rice. Similarly, At Vermilion's lazy attempt at a thali (usually a vibrant plate of several different dishes, plus rice or bread and pickle) includes ordinary daal makhni, chicken korma, and channa saag, plus lukewarm naan and raita. It's fine, but it costs $24, and you can get the exact same thing for $10 at your neighborhood Indian place.
As amusing as At Vermilion is, in the end, I found it a little depressing. It seems as if the chef has no confidence that her food will thrive on its own, so she depends on this dated and silly show to distract us from it and justify the prices. (And maybe someone ought to buy the servers a pani puri margarita—they're so serious that they might as well work in the ER.) If the restaurant put as much attention into its sauces as it does into its squeeze-bottled, architectural presentations, it would be an improvement.
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