Smile Politely

Koh-i-noor: Downtown Champaign’s new Indian restaurant

I love Indian food, and my Champaign-loving friend and I decided to try the new Koh-i-noor, located in what used to be Escobar’s. While the menu is almost exactly the same as other Indian restaurants in C-U, we enjoyed trying new dishes while savoring old favorites.

Koh-i-noor is friendly to the taste buds and the wallet. The menu reads more like a bucket list than a menu: just about everything you need to satisfy your craving is listed, and it’s hard to resist ordering just one more type of naan.

In the interior, Koh-i-noor confidently wears Escobar’s vibe, with added accessories complementing the inherited lighting and aesthetic. Booths were comfortable (we sat in one tucked away from the door) and provided a comfortable stage setting for our meal.

To start, we ordered a vegetable combo platter ($3.99), masala papad ($1.50), and paneer kulcha naan ($1.99). The vegetable combo platter is inarguably delicious; more importantly, it is also a strong choice for any newcomer to Indian food. It comes with aloo tikki (fried mashed potatoes with peas and spices), samosas (fried dough filled with potatoes and peas), and vegetable mix pakoras (cauliflower and potatoes fried in chickpeas batter). The platter introduces touchstone spices such as curry and cardamom, but the frying process and vegetable/potato base mellows the flavor. Newcomers will be intrigued, but not overwhelmed. No Indian-food skeptic could balk at the temptations of a piping hot samosa, and Koh-i-noor presents a good argument for conversion.

Papad is a popular wafer snack made of thinly-packed lentils. It tastes like it sounds — it almost pops in your mouth. The mild lentil flavor lends itself well to dipping in chutneys. (Speaking of chutneys, Koh-i-noor offers a third option over the standard sweet tamarind and green chutney: a spicy, almost sour onion chutney.) Papad comes standard with toppings, but we’d recommend asking for papad without them. While tasty, the toppings had too many tomatoes and onions, making for an awkward eating experience as juices slid off the wafer and onto our hands.

Speaking of tasty flat bread: let’s talk about naan. Beloved by newcomers and grizzled veterans alike, this flat, chewy, butter-topped bread is so good it warrants being ordered as both an appetizer and a side dish (my companion laughed at me). Like all good things in life — La Croix, ice cream, Kardashians — naan comes in a variety of flavors. We ordered paneer kulcha, a mildly-sweet naan filled with nuts and cherries that begs to be dipped in any chutney. I haven’t met a naan I don’t like, and with prices so low, try out anything that sounds good to you. Just make sure your server understands you’d like the naan with the appetizers if that is the case (and that your companion gets none of your appetizer naan if s/he laughs at you).

Koh-i-noor seems to have a penchant for unhurried service. This can be pleasing when you want date night to linger, but torture when “hungry” evolves into “hangry.” Diners should not leave their patience or attention-grabbing wave at home.

After what seemed to be ages, we managed to wave down a server so we could order our entrées. I chose an assertive garlic chicken masala ($8.99) and my friend recommended a yellow daal ($7.99) for balance. It was a great strategy. Garlic chicken masala has a bold, tomato-forward flavor that melts into a buttery, garlic-y undertone with a kick. Meanwhile, the yellow daal features a mellow stew of onion, turmeric and garam masala. It brought a softer and palate-cleansing note thanks to the lentils in the dish. We enjoyed the masala with plain naan and the daal with jasmine rice.

All in all, Koh-i-noor offered a wonderful dinner for two at an incredibly reasonable price. I would happily return (if only for the third chutney). The restaurateurs of Chambana have created an opulent garden of cuisines and food cultures in our twin cities, an ever-shifting harvest enjoyed by all of us who live here. I raise my naan to Koh-i-noor, and hope great Indian food continues to take root in C-U.

Koh-i-noor is located at 6 East Columbia Avenue, Champaign, and open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m.

All photos by Emily Cross.

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