NORTH CENTER — Jeet Singh has wanted to run a restaurant alongside his dad since he was 4.
He remembers riding on the back of Manmohan Singh’s scooter in India, listening to the elder Singh talk about his career as a chef.
“He was telling me about some of his experiences and his reasons for leaving this one restaurant. At that particular moment I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll open one up for you,’” Jeet Singh said. “That conversation remained with me throughout my life. It was always in the back of my head.”
Now, the father-son team are doing just that, realizing a decades-old dream with Basant in North Center. The Indian restaurant, 1939 W. Byron St., opened in December and takes its name from the Indian festival marking the beginning of spring.
“Spring is when the new leaves and new flowers bloom. When the new colors from fresh vegetation comes up, right? Everything is new and life is full of freshness. And we want to bring that freshness, color and fragrance to our menu,” said Manmohan Singh, who is the restaurant’s executive chef.
Over his career he’s been a chef at the Oberoi Group of Hotels, the Taj Group and a lecturer at the Pusa Institute, passing on his knowledge and skills to future generations of chefs. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Indian Culinary Forum and Indian Federation of Culinary Associations in 2018 for his contributions to India’s culinary scene.
Jeet Singh worked as an operation and strategy consultant. Last year, he took over the Byron Street space, formerly the site of Chicago House Of ‘Za.
Basant’s menu is influenced by different regions of India, and combines traditional recipes with Manmohan Singh’s French training and fresh locally sourced ingredients.
Menu items include lamb gustaba, a delicacy from the Kashmir region featuring meatballs served in a yogurt-based sauce, and fish basant, which is salmon covered in cream coconut milk and a spicy tomato-based sauce.
“Lamb gustaba is typically served in Kashmir and even then only really made during weddings. It’s very hard to find good gustaba in the U.S. — and forget about the U.S. — it’s hard to find in Kashmir,” Jeet Singh said. “We really wanted to highlight this, so my father and I traveled a lot in Kashmir to different restaurants trying to taste good lamb gustaba to see how we’d want to do it here.”
Opening during a Chicago winter in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t ideal, Jeet Singh said, but the restaurant got by thanks to steady takeout orders. This slower pace enabled Manmohan Singh to train the staff to his standards as business scaled up over the last year.
It’s a teaching style Manmohan Singh has perfected over the years that he also practiced at home when he cooked for his family.
Jeet Singh and his brother would often look over their father’s shoulders while he explained why he chose to use one ingredient over another or why he was preparing the food in a specific way. He wanted them to know the value of good food prepared well. He would be happily surprised when, at a young age, his children would talk critically and analyze how a dish tasted or was prepared when they went out to eat at a restaurant.
“You learn more by seeing someone prepare something than by just reading. Seeing how it’s made is very vital. In one moment you can learn so many things you’ll remember,” Manmohan Singh said.
Basant is open 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Basant’s menu is below.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: