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Vajra

Restaurants River West/West Town
5 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Executive chef Min Thapa’s ambrosial Nepali menu is pure sensory delight, matched by theatrical cocktails and some of the city’s finest service.

Before Vajra opened this winter, my only experience with Nepali cuisine was as a menu addendum at Indian restaurants—steamed momos (dumplings) and cauliflower-potato curries scattered among pan-Indian staples like butter chicken and saag paneer. It’s not surprising when you consider that Nepal—which shares borders with India, Tibet and China—has been isolated for much of its history, only opening to tourists in the 1950s.

Named for a mythical weapon used by the Hindu God of Thunder, Vajra illuminates this diminutive yet diverse destination through adaptations of the dishes co-owner Dipesh Kakshapaty grew up eating in bustling Butwal, from tandoori-roasted game to soothing root-veg curries.

Our senses were abuzz the moment we walked through the door. Head bartender Juanjo Pulgarin presided over the narrow bar, streaming colorful house-made syrups into shakers and coaxing smoke into a wine decanter filled with whiskey and soju. The latter cocktail—dubbed the Spiny Babbler’s Nest—would be cascaded into my rocks glass minutes later, its lazily snaking smoke turning heads nearby. The drink’s campfire-sweet aroma disguised the ambling burn of szechuan-infused demerara syrup. My sister’s thirst-quenching Fields of Elysium tasted like a melted pisco-spiked lime freeze pop, mingling tropical-sweet kiwi purée and elderflower liqueur.

I’m already plotting return visits to eat my way through Vajra’s entire small plates menu, a parade of classic Himalayan dishes in miniature, like charred duck chhoela and steamed momos. The shiny-skinned parcels’ edges were neatly pleated into little ridges, their centers teeming with minced goat and napa cabbage flavored with ginger and szechuan peppercorns. Dabbed in creamy avocado chutney and sweet tomato sauce, each bite was a sensory symphony.

The samosa chaat arrived as a deconstruction of the savory fried appetizer—warm, fried mashed potato cones and peas wading in yogurt sauce streaked with cilantro chutney and dotted with sev, tiny fried noodles made from chickpea flour. I’d suggest eating this sweet-savory delight quickly to appreciate the textural and temperature contrasts—easy work for a foursome.

A tomato and cashew sauce enrobed a pair of paneer-stuffed capsicum peppers in luscious, tangy comfort. Preserved bamboo shoots and potato bobbed in cumin- and coriander-spiced curry in a nod to the beloved Nepali soup aloo tama bodi. Each of executive chef Min Thapa’s nuanced, beautifully spiced preparations lingered on my mind the way aromas from a long-cooked meal sometimes pervade the kitchen for an extra day or two.

But none haunted me quite like the tandoori venison. Smoky bark enveloped the succulent, earthy meat, which is marinated overnight in yogurt, spices and young papaya. We spritzed it with the juice of a blistered lemon and drizzled it with smoked makhani, a mouth-coating butter gravy. I’ve never tasted deer meat this special.

Service flowed effortlessly like a quiet, steady stream of attention and care from the ever-roving waitstaff, all of whom were fluent in the expansive food and drink menu, without a hint of preach.

Overstuffed as we were, paan pistachio kuulchi—bittersweet betel leaf and burnt pistachio ice cream in a pool of bright mango sauce—was a fitting ender, refreshing us with just enough creamy sweetness to satisfy. Like everything else I tasted, it stirred all five senses to joyous life, for which I’ll return to Vajra again and again.

Vitals

Atmosphere: In the home of shuttered ragtag pasta spot the Charleton, Vajra leans elegant, comfortable and serene, with a black-and-white color palette, accented by colorful framed artwork and intricate carved dividers.

What to eat: Executive chef Min Thapa’s (Cumin) lovely renditions of traditional Nepali dishes join a small handful of Indian staples like biryani, vindaalu and naan. Don’t miss the goat momos, tandoori-cooked venison and goat, and paneer-stuffed capsicum.

What to drink: Head bartender Juanjo Pulgarin’s colorful cocktails are perfumed with spices, chilies and floral liqueurs to complement the fiery fare. Try the bright, limey Fields of Elysium or the boozeless habanero-spiced lassi.

Where to sit: Come early for a drink at this 56-seater’s small but lively bar. The narrow dining room is comfortably spaced and great for groups. Book in advance via Tock.

Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.

By: Maggie Hennessy

Posted:

Details

Address: 1329 W Chicago Ave
Chicago
60642
Price: $$$
Contact:
Opening hours: Sun–Thu 5–10pm; Fri, Sat 5–11pm
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