Outside of Little India on Devon, walking into Essence of India is as close as you'll get in Chicago to actually experiencing authentic Indian cuisine. Opened in July 2004, this Lincoln Square restaurant was established with the intent to provide diners with a "culinary and cultural passage to India." And with the imported decor, the extensive menu and the decent prices, it's easily accomplished that.
With 83 items on the menu (How can I be so exact? They're numbered.), divided into separate sections of "Essence," there's something for everyone here, from the meat lover to the strictest vegan. Most meals range from $8.95 to $15.95, and different styles of rice (biriyani, saffron, etc.) and naan bread (butter, garlic, keema, peshwari) are sold separately. Dishes are delivered in intricately elegant containers, and while they may look small, they provide more than enough food for a meal. With each dish you have your choice of spiciness: mild, medium, spicy and very spicy. (Unless you've got taste buds of steel, "very spicy" is not the way you want to go).
There's a full bar and an elaborate drink menu, as well as standard soft drinks and coffee. The dessert menu completes the experience, rounding out with the exquisitely rich gulab jamun (a sweet fried pastry). There may be a lot of Indian restaurants to choose from, but Essence of India has the delicious dishes and friendly, relaxing environment to keep customers coming back.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Zach Freeman