Saturday, September 13, 2008

World's Largest Vegetarian Menu?

I was flipping through an alternative newspaper one evening when a small ad caught my eye. “World largest vegetarian menu,” boasted the ad, for Chowpatti restaurant in Arlington Heights. (No, “World largest” is not a typo on my part.)

The world’s largest vegetarian menu? I was impressed— and skeptical.

So, I decided to take a trip out to Arlington Heights.

On a Friday afternoon shortly after 2:30, I arrived at a strip mall on S. Arlington Heights Rd. Above a doorway, a large, green banner read “INTERNATIONAL VEGETARIAN CUISINE.” I entered the restaurant, and a woman at the front counter told me to choose my table.

I walked into the dining room, where a white man and woman sat at one table, and two Asian women at another. The room had a calm feeling to it, with about a dozen tables and a mix of cushiony, green-and-brown benches and green-and-brown chairs. Table lights suspended by chains from the ceiling helped give the place the feel of a coffee shop.

“In a few minutes, our kitchen will close, so I will need your order soon,” said the hostess, handing me the menu, with the slightest of Indian accents.

“No problem,” I replied.

“I appreciate it,” she added.

I began to flip through the menu. It was divided into sections of a variety of ethnicities, from Indian to Middle Eastern to Italian to Mexican.

It was only 22 pages long.

And those were just the numbered pages. Two more preceded them, one with a history of the restaurant, and the other with a table of contents for the rest of the menu.

Overwhelmed, I asked the hostess for recommendations. She pointed out the Chowpatti veggie burger, the Bombay Bhel salads, the Sev Batata Puri, and the Pav Bhaji, among other dishes.

I decided on the Pav Bhaji, a stew of steamed vegetables with seasonings served with a side of grilled French bread. I opted for a “medium” spice level from among choices of mild, medium, and hot.

The hostess then suggested a drink. Beyond a range of lhasis, milk drinks, and teas, the menu offered 28 combinations of fruit and/or vegetable juice. My eye fell on the Refreshing Fruit Cocktail, a mix of pineapple, grape, and apple juices.

But— ack! $8.95!

And yet, I’m a sucker for fresh juice.

I ordered it.

(A paragraph at the top of the page with the headline “Benefits of Freshly Squeezed Juices” included this consolation: “When considering the expense, think of our juice as a delicious investment in your health which pays for yourself.” I didn’t quite buy it, but it made me feel a little better.)

While waiting for the food to come, I perused the menu. The first page gave an interwoven history of the restaurant and the family that ran it. It turned out a man from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, named Anil Kapadia started the business in 1982. He named it after his native city’s Chowpatty Beach, where, back when he was dating his wife, vendors sold a variety of food— what the restaurant’s menu described as “culinary delicacies and tasty tid-bits.”

After the history came the table of contents, arranged as follows:

1) Dining helpful hints
2) The levels of spice [explains the kitchen’s spice system, from mild to hot; written in three paragraphs, plus bullet points]
3) Soups
3) Gourmet soups
4) Sandwiches, gourmet salads
5) American favorites
6) Italian favorites
7) Veggie pizzas
8) Mexican favorites
10) Middle Eastern favorites
11) Bombay favorites
14) South Indian favorites
16) North Indian favorites
17) Indian flat breads
18) Rice selections
18) Dal selections
18) Combination platters
19) Side orders
20) Beverages
20) Hot beverages
21) Freshly squeezed juice
22) Dessert

If it wasn’t the world’s (or at least America’s) most extensive vegetarian menu, it was still doing pretty well for itself.

My fruit juice arrived first. With a frothy texture, it had a sweet taste from the apple and a tartness from the pineapple and grape. The apple juice itself tasted freshly pressed, and the whole mixture was refreshing. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but with this drink, I could sense what they must appreciate with wines.

The Pav Bhaji was next. A stew with hearty chunks of— what was it?— potato?, along with peas, tomato, onion, and sprigs of parsley, it, too, tasted freshly made. The dish wasn’t too oily; the peas, notably, stood up to biting without being hard.

As I chewed the mixed vegetables, I felt the spice from the stew, but the flavor, especially from the tomato, crept up through the spice— as opposed to the spice’s covering for a lack of flavor, as is the case with some Indian food.

While I continued alternately eating and looking at the menu, the hostess brought over a complementary small plate with what looked like a fried sweet-potato puff and a nacho chip topped with sour cream, diced tomatoes, and shredded cucumbers. They were samples of what I didn’t order.

The fried potato had a spice to it (dipping it in the accompanying tamarind sauce helped), while the toppings on the nacho had a nice cooling effect. Towards the end of the meal, I dipped the French bread in the tamarind sauce, which made for a sweet flavor and further cooled my mouth.

The hostess asked if I’d like tea or dessert, and I decided to indulge in Kesar Pista Kulfi, homemade saffron-pistachio Indian ice cream. It arrived in the form of a tiny pie cut into eight wedges with two toothpicks stuck into it. Though it looked small sitting in the middle of the plate, that didn’t matter much when the cold, dense, pistachio-ish creaminess seemed to climb up the roof of my mouth.


I could have gone for the Carrot Halwa afterwards, but such as it was, my budget was already crying for mercy.

The hostess dropped off the check, along with a take-out menu— only eight pages long— a coupon for my next visit, and a business card.

The hostess, it turned out, was Niyanta Kapadia, one of the two daughters of the restaurant’s founder.

“We do have our journal, by the showcase, if you want to sign in,” she said.

After a few moments, I walked up to the cash register to pay, passing reviews on the wall from the Daily Herald newspaper and North Shore Magazine. By the register, T-shirts with vegetarian slogans sat in a display case; facts about vegetarianism, from Vegetarian Times magazine, were posted on the wall not far from a few Norman Rockwell images; and a column of photos of Anil, the restaurant’s founder, who died in 2000, had been set up.

I asked Niyanta whether it was true that the restaurant had the most extensive vegetarian menu.

“I just reduced my menu three […] weeks ago,” she said. “It was 26 pages and so many varieties. It’s just that my mom’s turning 65 tomorrow, and she’s had a couple falls in the kitchen. She slipped and fell, so her rotary cuffs, you know, aren’t cooperating, and just her age and health.

“So, I figured, slowly, slowly. You know, I don’t want to burden her so much. So, that’s why I’m simplifying. And many of my customers are even telling me, ‘Niyanta, you guys are doing too much. Reduce,’ you know. So, I think it’s… in the long run, it’s just going to help me to manage it for a longer period of time.”

I think I speak for a lot of customers when I say, Niyanta, I think you’ll be just fine with 22 pages.

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