REVIEW: Naperville’s Honest serves an undiscovered part of Indian cuisine

Honest is located at 1568 Ogden Avenue in Naperville, Illinois. Photo by Aryav Bothra.

If you’re searching for a restaurant to satisfy your cravings for all things tangy, spicy, and Indian, look no further than Honest in Naperville. A melting pot of Americanized style with authentic ambiance and mouth-watering food, it’s the ultimate place to try some Indian street-food.

Frank first impressions

Honest is part of a revolution to help Americans tread away from their standard order of Indian food: butter chicken and garlic naan. It’s likely the unanimous response you’ll get if you ask an American what they’d eat at an Indian restaurant. Everything else is apparently too spicy, or messy, or has an odd flavor, right? The preconceived notion trails Indian food is that some dishes taste quite weird and often leave you smelling like ‘curry.’ It’s a cuisine that, frankly, many Americans would rather not invest their money and taste buds in. 

But there’s a whole realm of Indian food that the American stereotype neglects: street food. You could eat hundreds of different dishes without even trying a fraction of the street foods available across the Indian subcontinent. It’s the kind of food that leaves your mouth watering for the next bite but momentarily satisfied with the one you’ve just taken. This casual style of food and eating, actually, really transcends to apply on a bigger level at Honest, especially through their ambiance and decor.

A distinct blend of sights and smells, the moment you take a step into the restaurant, all of your senses are immediately stimulated. It feels like you’ve stepped straight into a cafe in the heart of Delhi. Vibrant green, red, and blue paint line the walls and modernist Indian paintings are hung sporadically throughout the space. Cast in charcoal-colored metal, famous Hindi sayings protrude from the wall above the tables, making for a cozy, almost intimate atmosphere.

Massive floor-to-ceiling windows allow for a surplus of natural light to seep in, illuminating the colorfully decorated booths and wooden tables that are, truthfully, quite reminiscent of ones you might find in India. Standard wood chairs are traded out for bold green, red, and orange fabrics, boring leather booths are brightened up with lime green leather, and an already colorful wall is further brought to life with some patterned wallpaper. 

A very particular smell of garam masala and cumin tickles the back of your nose, and, as an Indian, it feels extremely comforting. Honest has a smell and atmosphere that I’ve never felt in 15 years of going to countless Indian restaurants; there’s a certain nostalgia associated with it that just transports me back to my grandparents’ home in India. And, in fact, that’s their goal: to create a restaurant that emulates a restaurant back in India, making Indian-born residents reminisce about their homeland. With such a welcoming atmosphere that’s able to replicate the authenticity of what you should feel in an Indian restaurant, it’s safe to assume that the food will meet the same standards.

Truthfully tasty

With extremely welcoming staff and a well-prepared kitchen, the food seemed to come out as soon as we ordered. The dishes were served in simple ceramic crockery and with classic metal cutlery, really showcasing the food without any fancy decorations or distractions. It’s just pure food. 

If there’s one dish that made Honest a well-renowned, multi-national chain, it was their pav bhaji (pronounced “pow bha-gee”). Originating from the heart of India, pav bhaji is a classic street-food consisting of a thick vegetable curry, called the bhaji, and soft bread rolls, the pav. Honest’s version features a glistening bhaji topped with melted butter that has various vegetables speckled throughout. Although a slightly unsettling color for first-time eaters, there’s no dish quite like it. Softened potatoes, mashed vegetables, and creamy butter meld together with the dynamic blend of turmeric, cumin, fennel, and coriander to create an explosion of flavor in your mouth. Buttery vegetables and roasted spices in your mouth, it’s impossible not to savor the smooth, rich, nearly decadent texture with every possible taste bud.

There’s a certain acidity that comes from the pickled onions on the side, a heat that you feel in the back of your throat from the green chilies, and a satisfying mouthfeel from the potatoes that is just unparalleled in pav bhaji. The dish is obviously a medley of various vegetables, spices, and fats, but it’s so skillfully made that each and every ingredient is able to be distinctly tasted. The potency from the garlic, richness from the butter, crunch from the carrots, acidity from the mango powder. Exemplifying the heart of Indian cooking, using many ingredients to create one cohesive dish, Pav Bhaji is made in a way that is much for discernible for the average palette. 

Another key dish to Honest’s success is their masala pulav (pronounced “muh-sah-lah puh-lao”), which is basically a rice-based dish with vegetables and similar spices to pav bhaji. Originating from Mumbai, it’s typically made on a large, flat pan (tava), much like pav bhaji because street vendors usually sell various foods from one cart, hence the similarities in their flavors. It comes out in another ceramic bowl, minimally garnished with coriander and ginger juliennes, and so it goes without saying that don’t expect an elaborately presented dish at Honest. The food speaks for itself. 

The rice is tinted a lovely golden-yellow shade, likely from the turmeric, and crisp vegetables peak out from underneath the mound of rice. The texture is as you’d expect: it’s rice. It’s soft and coagulates in your mouth with some chewing but has a nice initial bite, almost as if it’s been cooked al-dente. The vegetables aren’t adding anything super special to the dish, maybe just a break in texture as they do constitute a slight crunch nonetheless. The real magic in the dish, though, is no surprise: the spices. 

Almost identical in its spice composition to pav bhaji, the masala pulav can be thought of almost as a rice version of it. There’s this subtlety in the way the spices are incorporated that instead of stifling their taste, actually amplifies it tenfold. There’s obvious roasting and caramelization with the spices and onions that creates this depth of flavor or dimension that often lacks in Americanized Indian food. First you taste the savoriness from the salt, then the umami from the garam masala, followed by the acidity from the dried mango, and lastly the heat from the chilies. It’s not the kind of food that requires keeping a glass of water next you in case your mouth catches on fire, but a dish that begs a higher level of comprehension and use of your palette. 

Other notable dishes at Honest that continue this trend of casual, higher intellect eating include their Chicago Special Sandwich, a grilled sandwich featuring Indian cheese with vegetables and tangy spices, or the Mysore Masala Dosa, a rice pancake lined with a special masala and served with an array of chutneys and lentils. 

Encompassing a part of India that many Indians feel that they’ve left back at home, there’s no place with the ambiance, authenticity, and simplicity like Honest. A spectacular fusion of Americanized style with extremely authentic food and decor, the verdict is in: it’s honestly the best Indian restaurant in the area.

Honest is located at 1568 Ogden Avenue in Naperville. Learn more by calling (847) 594-4199 or by visiting https://honestrestaurantsusa.com/index.html

Aryav Bothra is a food critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

Leave a Reply