Martha Williams
Gobi manchurian at the English-accented, pub-style Indian spot Pub Royale in Chicago. (Photo: Martha Williams.)

Pub Royale chef Jason Vaughan has had his hands in French cuisine since the beginning of his cooking career. After years spent in San Francisco working with the likes of Michael Mina and George Morrone and in Chicago with Laurent Gras, he realized he was ready for a departure from fine dining. That shift came with the introduction to Chicago restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff, with whom he opened a slew of spots sans tablecloth within the Hogsalt Hospitality family, including Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Green Street Smoked Meats and Bavette’s. “I connected a lot more with that than I did with fine dining,” Vaughan says. “I enjoy the discipline in fine-dining restaurants but would much rather feed a lot of people than just a few very rich people.”

After five years with Hogsalt and a handful of London openings with the Soho House group, Vaughan joined Heisler Hospitality for the opening of Pub Royale, a restaurant that’s been spinning out English pub–style Indian fare in Chicago’s Wicker Park since May. Vaughan’s lack of experience in Indian cuisine is exactly what led him to agree to the project. “It’s what excited me about it — it was a chance to dive into something totally different, especially in the way they approach spices,” he says. “They take fennel seed and deal with it in 20 different ways, whereas in French and Italian cuisines, you pretty much just toast it and grind it.”

One such dish that was totally different to Vaughan was the samosas, fried dough pockets filled with boiled potatoes, whole fennel seed, cumin and caramelized onions — another ingredient he learned to treat differently in this kitchen. “Caramelizing onions in Indian cuisine calls for a lot more fast frying over high heat,” he explains. “It’s really different than the sweet, soft, and slowly caramelized onions for something like French onion soup.”

Jason Vaughan’s lack of experience cooking Indian cuisine is exactly what led him to take on the project. (Photo: Heisler Hospitality.)

Those discrepancies led Vaughan to do his homework, buying cookbooks like Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation and traveling frequently to Chicago’s Devon Avenue for tastes of Indian plates. His research continued beyond India, too, thanks to trips to destinations like Japan and Copenhagen. Each moment seems to have its place on Vaughan’s menu, a collection of British- and Indian-inspired dishes with nods to several other continents. “The country as a whole is moving into more globally influenced food,” he says. “There are so many options these days.” The chef exhibits this philosophy in dishes like the lamb dumplings, a riff on Nepalese momo with braised lamb shoulder, Kentucky soy, chili oil and scallion. There are also the salt cod samosas, which were inspired in part by traditional salt cod from Spain but also suggest Chinese crab rangoon and British fish and chips, thanks to the addition of cream cheese and malt vinegar.

When Vaughan wasn’t turning to his team for feedback on dishes, he’d take it upon himself to not only taste the plate, but to actually eat the whole thing. “I always try to sit down in the dining room and eat the whole plate because it’s very different than tasting one small bite of something,” he says. “If I keep eating it, then I know I feel good about the dish.”

He returned to the kitchen for a few items that did prove challenging — namely the gobi manchurian, a crispy and spicy cauliflower dish and a personal request from Heisler partner Matt Eisler. Achieving the perfect crust for the dish threw Vaughan for a loop until it dawned on him to use a simple, all-purpose flour dredge akin to one required for fried chicken. The last dish to join the menu was one that Vaughan had been drumming up for weeks: eggplant curry, an off-the-cuff ideation whose vegetarian makeup had nothing to do with its late arrival. While many restaurants scramble in the 11th hour to round out a meat-centric menu with something plant-based, Vaughan experienced no such dilemma with his newfound flavors. “I think half the menu is vegetarian, and it wasn’t intentional,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to achieve those flavors through the layering of spices and vegetables and not by relying heavily on items like bacon and lamb.”

Lightening up on meat was a practice that Vaughan picked up during his more recent stages throughout San Francisco kitchens, where he noticed the possibilities beyond the rich flavors found in French cooking. “I noticed at State Bird Provisions and Bar Tartine that food is becoming a lot lighter in a lot of ways,” he explains. “It’s not vegetarian, because they still have pork belly and bone marrow, but there was a lot less protein on the plate — flavor is the main show.”

It’s that quest for big flavor, coupled with a strong focus on cuisines that traipse the globe, that Vaughan is most looking forward to next. “Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have known what dashi or many other ingredients were, and I want to take advantage of that,” he says. He points to the contrast in cuisines he’s witnessed in broths alone: a classic French one that is clear and never reaches a boil versus a ramen one that is deliberately cloudy and boiled like crazy. “Had I seen ramen broth 15 years ago I wouldn’t have understood it, but today I feel a lot of freedom in cooking,” he says. “I respect tradition, but there’s no reason we should only fall back on French technique — once you understand how to layer flavors and properly balance a dish, you can pretty much go anywhere.”

Pub Royale
2049 W. Division Street, Chicago, IL 60622