Marisa Paolillo, the chef-partner at Mango Pickle in Edgewater, cooks exactly what she wants. The 42-year-old Chicago native, who lived in Mumbai for nine years with her husband (partner Nakul Patel), gets a 70- to 85-pound Slagel Family Farm lamb delivered to her six-month-old Indian bistro every Wednesday. Then she butchers it and serves a different cut each evening. Mine was a shredded shoulder slow-roasted with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and ginger and served with fresh green chickpeas and more carrots. “The lamb used to be carried right in the front door,” my server said. “But as our customer base became broader, they were … less comfortable with that.” The entire animal is often gone by Saturday.
Apparently, the rest of us want what Paolillo wants. Her storefront space, while not memorable, always seems to be full. And with its shabby-chic sari tapestries, kitschy pillows, and snug banquettes, it’s certainly cozy. Strings of colorful lights overhead make it feel like it’s perpetually Diwali.
Paolillo packs her revolving menu with clever takes on Indian standards. Poori popovers and masala chicken rolls share space with pillowy okra pakoras and doughy-crisp samosas fresh from the fryer and showered with punchy hibiscus-date chutney and a cilantro granita. Even saag paneer, historically an eyesore, looks pretty in Paolillo’s hands. Her garlicky version is studded with roasted cauliflower, mushrooms, mustard greens, almonds, and cashews and topped with a dainty marigold.
The restaurant really hits its stride with the menu’s larger dishes. I’ve eaten plenty of butter chicken (“the General Tso’s of Indian food,” according to Sam Sifton of The New York Times) and can’t recall one as satisfying as Mango Pickle’s: half a roasted free-range bird in creamy ghee and cinnamony garam masala with roasted mushrooms and oven-dried tomatoes. But the pork belly vindaloo truly captures the essence of the restaurant: Paolillo marinates the pork overnight in a homemade Kashmiri chili-garlic vindaloo masala, braises it in red wine, and finishes it with ginger-infused vinegar. Three puffy sabudana papad (pappadams made with tapioca) serve as perfect bowls for the tender hunks of pork.
The Indian-tinged cocktails (think cardamom gin and tonic) are fine, but the bold Ballast Point Indra Kunindra, a stout that teases the tongue with cumin and finishes with a wave of coconut, makes a much better accompaniment. Desserts may be the operation’s only blind spot, unless you like, say, dense carrot brownies and elaborate productions around halvah that only reinforce the limitations of halvah.
I suspect we haven’t glimpsed Mango Pickle’s ceiling yet. “I’d like to step up our game,” says Paolillo. “That’s the artistry part of being a chef, that you can change and develop.” As a critic, I hear this sort of thing often. But as a fan of Mango Pickle, I can’t wait to see it happen.