You might not know chef Sahil Sethi’s name yet – but if you’ve dined at ROOH Chicago, Bar Goa, or Indienne in the past few years, you’ve definitely enjoyed his food. Sethi has been a key player in Chicago’s modern Indian food scene over the past few years, most recently in partnership with his mentor, chef Sujan Sarkar, at Indienne.
Their newest restaurant together, Sifr, veers away from Indian fare to focus instead on the flavors of the Middle East, inspired by Sethi’s work and travels throughout the region. At Sifr, everything from the mezze to family-sized portions of roasted chicken, lamb shank, and Wagyu ribeye from the wood-fired hearth is meant to be shared.
“We’re taking a modern approach to the cuisine by incorporating different techniques from countries like Iran, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and more,” Sethi says. Here’s everything you need to know before planning a feast of your own.
1. There’s a natural crossover between Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Sethi points to common spices used in both Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, including chile, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and black peppercorn, which were transported to the Middle East by ancient merchants along the Silk Road. And it’s not just the spices: “Slow cooking and one-pot cooking is an important part of both the cultures,” he says. “A Saudi Arabian dish called kabsa made with rice and chicken is quite like biryani. And the Persian pilaf that’s featured on Sifr’s menu is something that we eat on Sundays at home, just without the Zereshk berry.”
At Sifr, Sethi and his team make spice blends in house, like a fragrant baharat for lamb shank with Persian pilaf. “There are a lot of similarities not only in our food but also the culture, hospitality, and the way we eat,” he says.
2. Several dishes are inspired by Sethi’s time in Abu Dhabi.
Sethi worked at the St. Regis Abu Dhabi for two years, learning the nuances of Middle Eastern cuisine from some of the best cooks in the region. Dishes like Sifr’s Tunisian eggplant with yogurt are directly inspired by his time in Abu Dhabi, with a fine dining twist. “We separated the yogurt and eggplant part of it,” Sethi explains. “I make more of a garlic yogurt mousse, and layer that with roasted eggplant mixed with garlic, white pepper, and lemon juice that sits on top of the yogurt. Then we put confit Roma tomatoes on top as a finishing touch.”
Chicken liver pâté accented with pomegranate molasses, passion fruit gel, and pickled rhubarb is another dish inspired by Abu Dhabi. “I used to make sawdat dajaj, which is a sautéed chicken liver, pomegranate molasses, and garlic breakfast dish,” Sethi recalls. “So the whole idea of making this was keeping the flavors true to the cuisine and presenting them in a modern way, utilizing techniques that I learned in restaurants as a young cook.”
3. Live fire cooking is the centerpiece.
Most dishes at Sifr are kissed by live fire in some way. “In the Levantine region, they normally cook over charcoal and it’s just not possible to replicate that flavor in the oven,” Sethi says. At Sifr, the kitchen’s $48,000 custom nine-foot wide grill was made by Grills By Demant in Atlanta, and diners can glimpse leaping flames and whole chickens and vegetables hanging over it. There’s a separate kebab cooking station and even a shawarma attachment that will be used for brunch.
“We use mesquite for a nice smoky flavor on the kebabs, and oak wood since it burns for longer,” Sethi says. “Our kebabs are cooked over ember and for the meats to be cooked low and slow, we use a mix of both wood and charcoal.” A few kebabs to try include black tiger prawns marinated in a toum and harissa emulsion, Hokkaido scallops with fermented pepper beurre blanc, and yogurt-marinated chicken shish taouk.
4. Vegans and vegetarians have options, too.
Starting with dips like muhammara and classic hummus made with charred green chickpeas and za’atar served with sesame-crusted pita bread and manakish, to herbed falafel, grilled maitake mushroom skewers, and hearth-roasted cauliflower with caramelized onions and pumpkin seed dukkah, there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu to choose from. (One more can’t miss-veg: the batata harra – spicy Lebanese potatoes fried with coriander, chili, and garlic.) “We want to accommodate as many people as we can,” Sethi says. “And we’re not going too much out of our way either because it’s a natural part of the cuisine.”
5. Score a rooftop seat in summer (or really, anytime).
The main dining room has 90 seats but in balmy summer months, the 97-seat rooftop is where you want to be. The roof faces Chicago’s skyscrapers and is also available to reserve on Resy (just indicate whether you prefer the dining room or rooftop when booking). The full food menu is available on the roof and has a separate bar so you won’t need to wait long for a cocktail. The rooftop will be enclosed in the winter, making it a year-round destination.
Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing her travel, food and wine. Her work has appeared in Departures, Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appétit and Travel + Leisure. Follow her here; follow Resy too.