Spices on the wall at Marigold Maison in Bannockburn
  • Michael Gebert
  • Decor from the ceiling, spices on the wall at Marigold Maison in Bannockburn

Considering how alien Indian food must have seemed at first to, well, anybody from any other food culture in America, the ubiquitous Indian buffet is a stroke of marketing genius in terms of gaining early acceptance and making the food accessible. But the buffets’ interchangeable dishes of brightly colored gravies made it unnecessary to ever actually learn anything about the cuisine. At least, that’s kind of the story of the mom-and-pop joints in the city, but as Mike Sula has chronicled more than a few times, the real action in Indian food in Chicago these days is in the ‘burbs, where money is being thrown around by western-educated, often second-generation South Asians who want to raise their own cuisine to a higher level of sophistication.

When I propose this theory to Sunil Kumar, chef of Bannockburn’s Marigold Maison, which opened this week, he quickly agrees with at least the buffet food portion of it. “Usually all the dishes are very heavy, with the heavy cream, with the ghee [clarified butter], with the cashews,” he says. “The idea [here] is that all the spices we roast in the house, and then we cook to order. All the spice comes from the dishes, and the food is very light.”

I’m sure Marigold Maison is not the only Indian restaurant in Chicago to cook traditional dishes from scratch that way, but it’s not all that common, either. “Any Indian grocery, you can buy a premade spice box for the chicken curry, for the saag—you’re making chicken, you just add that box, and you’re done,” Kumar says. “That’s why any new restaurant you go to you has the same flavors. In ours, we just focus on the quality.” To prove his point, he goes back into the kitchen and comes out with two boxes. A plastic one—like you might keep nails and screws in—holds various seeds and spices, while a wooden one has different brightly colored ground spices in its compartments. He keeps that one at his side to add a pinch of this or that as he cooks.

Bannockburn is a small but very prosperous northern suburb, known mainly for the sports figures—Ditka, Jackson, etc.—who lived quiet lives here; Marigold Maison sits in an incongruously medieval-looking shopping mall (they take their Scottish theme seriously, apparently). The restaurant is the brainchild of John Kapoor, who owns the upscale steak-and-sushi chain Roka Akor with locations in River North, Skokie, and Phoenix, as well as a pharmaceutical company, Akorn Pharmaceuticals (which put him on Forbes’ list of billionaires in 2013). Marigold Maison is following the same blueprint—as with Roka Akor, Chicago’s edition is the second one after Phoenix, and eventually Kumar will move onto wherever the next one opens—but maybe because this is both Kapoor’s and Kumar’s home cuisine, it feels more personal. Kumar points out that all the photos decorating the restaurant, scenes of India and closeups of spices, were taken by him. And he and a friend created a work of art with lanterns and cowbells suggestive of India (but mostly found at Home Depot).

At one point, Kumar owned five Indian restaurants in and around Mystic, Connecticut. “I was the mom-and-pop then,” he says, and he learned cooking from his family in India. “I learned a lot of cooking from my family members, and my mom, she is a very talented cook. When I look back, I’m doing the same as her, taking a few spices, roasting it, blending them and then adding into the dish. That’s always in the back of my mind.” Some of the dishes, particularly the vegetarian ones, are refined versions of things his mother made when he was growing up: “The saag paneer [stewed spinach and greens with cheese] is a very familiar dish. Wherever you go in the Punjab, they have a saag. That recipe is according to her. Dal makhani [lentil stew], whenever you go to the temple, they have dal makhani. It’s like a pasilla, it takes 18 to 20 hours to cook that. And the eggplant, that comes from my family.”

But Kumar also worked at a large hotel and casino in Connecticut, and he picked up techniques from that experience: “I wanted to do something out of the box, so I worked in the steakhouse as a master chef. Learning a little bit of techniques from Italian, from American cooking—I have the passion for that.” You might start to suspect the Italian influence when you see things like shrimp and calamari on the menu, but he says the restaurant draws inspiration from many parts of India, including coastal areas like Goa, where locals eat a lot of seafood.

That said, apart from the presence of the aforementioned proteins, the menu is not strikingly different from what you see on most buffets or at least the printed menus elsewhere (though Kumar does point out that his fits on a single sheet; it’s not a big book of dishes). What sets it apart is the care with which each dish is scratch cooked to order. The kitchen blooms with star anise and cardamom as he heats the spices; shrimp on a skewer go into the concrete tandoor covered in a gooey paste, and come out with bits charred black. On a couple of dishes I might wish for longer stewing—the saag paneer wants its flavors to meld long and slow—but most are so transformed by fresh, pungent spices that they could as well be new dishes, not the same old chicken tikka masala or eggplant bharta. Maybe that’s the real lesson from Italian cooking that Kumar is using here, the one that Italian food in America learned in the 80s and 90s—that when you use fresh ingredients, the familiar becomes new again.

Marigold Maison, 2535 Waukegan Road, Bannockburn; 847-940-0200.