WICKER PARK — A former Bollywood soap opera star and his wife are entering new terrain with Columbus Curry, which will bring traditional Indian curries to a busy stretch of Milwaukee Avenue just south of the Milwaukee Avenue and Wood Street intersection.
Rahul Rajaj, co-owner of Columbus Curry at 1359 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park, explained that the restaurant was named after the explorer because "Columbus was looking for a new route to get to India and as a result he found America."
Originally from New Delhi, Rajaj said he and his wife, Michelle, who is American, plan to cook "very authentic Indian food" with an emphasis on chicken curry, vegetarian and vegan dishes.
The Lakeview-based couple said it was a desire "to bring authentic Indian flavors to the area" that inspired Columbus Curry, which is their first restaurant venture.
A 1999 graduate of Maine's Bowdoin College, Rajaj has starred in Bollywood soap operas, worked in investment banking and authored a book, "Bollywood Roulette: Inside the Struggle!" about the struggles facing young actors and actresses trying to make it in India's motion picture industry.
"I am very much an artist at heart, another reason I feel so much at home in Wicker Park. I have lived all over the world, but think Milwaukee Avenue is very international and diverse and reminds me of Greenwich Village in New York," he said.
In May 2012, Rajaj set up permanent roots on the street when he bought the 124-year-old building at 1359 N. Milwaukee Ave. for $475,000, according to county records.
On Sunday, there were bright orange cones over the sidewalk in front of the one-story building as underground repair work continues there. The storefront was previously home to Futurgarb, a boutique that relocated a few doors north in 2012.
Rajaj said they are "working on gas lines right now" and other repairs, as well as building out the interior of the restaurant, which will seat around 50 people and offer takeout.
Rajaj said Columbus Curry "certainly hopes to open before the end of the year" and added, "My hope is as soon a possible."
An application for a liquor license was filed on Wednesday. Rajaj said the Columbus Curry plans to serve India pale ale as well as wines.
According to a profile on the Bowdoin website, Rajaj grew up in an Army family in India. He graduated from college with a degree in economics and philosophy and took a job on Wall Street. Rajaj said he was fascinated with working with clients who owned their own businesses, so he returned to India to start his first venture which "crashed in the dot-com bust."
He started a security business and also performed in street plays, which led to roles in national soap operas such as "Kabhi Hero, Kabhi Zero." He has said his book about the cutthroat world of the Bollywood scene dampened his acting career.
When Columbus Curry opens, it will join Cumin, which serves modern Nepalese food at 1414 N. Milwaukee Ave., as well as Flat Iron Pita Grill, which took over the former Food Mart at 1571 N. Milwaukee Ave., about two months ago and offers fast casual Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
In the 1300 block of Milwaukee Avenue, Columbus Curry will join neighbors Harold's Chicken Shack at 1361 N. Milwaukee Ave., Oiistar, a ramen-focused restaurant at 1385 N. Milwaukee Ave., and Antique Taco at 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Cheesie's Pub and Grub and Whiskey Business is scheduled to open just a few doors north of Columbus Curry at 1365 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chris Johnston, owner of Cheesie's, a "fry bar" specializing in poutine, said on Monday that the winter's "terrible weather" has delayed construction by a few months.
If all goes as planned, Cheesie's plans to open around Aug. 1, with the adjacent bar, Whiskey Business opening after that, Johnston said.