Wazwan, the ambitious South Asian restaurant that first appeared in Wicker Park in August, remains permanently on Division Street. This is not only good news for fans of Zubair Mohajir’s spicy chicken sandwiches and burgers, but also for the chef’s more sophisticated dishes, from delicate momos to specialist halal cuisine from the Chettinad region in the southern India.
Dinner service begins November 5 and is booked only with a 10-course modern Indian tasting menu. The evening service, served inside the back shed, is called Aman. To begin with, there will be a seat for 25 people per night with an additional seat possibly added. Reservations will go live on Monday via Tock.
The opening date is special for South Asians since November 4th is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The holidays can be a good time for all faiths within the culture. Mohajir, who is Muslim, is planning a special vegetarian menu for the next day so that diners can celebrate. Traditionally, Diwali meals have been meatless, and while Mohajir respects this, he also offers additional meat courses for those who want to celebrate in a different way.
Moving to Wicker Park is a change from Mohajir who was under contract to open the restaurant in another space. After construction issues in a Ukrainian village space a few blocks south, and after seeing how the pop-up service has gone smoothly over the past two months, Mohajir has chosen to move all operations at Wicker Park. Aman is one of Eater Chicago’s most anticipated openings of the year.
Mohajir left the world of finance for restaurants and pursued cooking, working in the Pump Room and as an apprentice at world famous Gaggan in Bangkok. The industrial challenges of COVID-19 have weighed on Wazwan’s team, but Mohajir is grateful for having given up on nomadic life.
“We are here to stay,” says Mohajir. “It’s weird to say, but after four years we finally have a permanent address.”
The Wazwan space reveals a side alley that leads to a small courtyard flowing into the shed and better suited to Mohajir’s vision of two radically different spaces. The owners of Mana Food Bar had a similar idea in mind when they built the space for Anaba Hand Rolls. Mohajir wants to keep a bombastic atmosphere up front, hoping that diners feel a bit hectic when walking down a street in Mumbai or Bangkok. The front speakers will continue to play a mix of hip-hop and Indian trap. Trap is a genre that is a mixture of influences, which Mohajir and chef de cuisine Chris De La Cueva have looked into. De La Cueva’s Filipino roots are exemplified in the lumpia served at Wazwan.
A tasting menu marks a return to Mohajir’s roots when Wazwan debuted four years ago as a wandering diner pop-up. He would later develop quick, casual fare for a food stand at the Politan Row food court in West Loop.
“The chicken sandwich wasn’t meant to be what it has become,” Mohajir says.
But during a take-out pandemic, this chicken sandwich was pretty valuable. Yet Mohajir always had bigger dreams. He demonstrated this with a particular pop-up that drew particularly long lines. Mohajir had unearthed a quality supply of halal breasts. Barbecue enthusiasts know that finding a good source of traditional beef brisket is hard enough.
A new dish that Mohajir is particularly enthusiastic about is korma with wild mushrooms and black truffle. Mushrooms are underused in Indian cuisine. This is partly due to the lack of quality supplies. Part of this is due to the reluctance of vegetarians who claim that mushrooms have a texture that reminds them of meat.
“We’ve always had a strange program against mushrooms,” says Mohajir.
He uses morels and makes the dish vegan, dropping ghee for the coconut milk and cashew butter: “We try to keep the food short,” he adds.
There’s also a bread basket of Indian flatbreads with saffron roti sheermal and a mix of pickles, including mango and chilli achar. Mohajir compares it to the relish platter at a Midwestern supper club.
Indian tasting menus are not plentiful in Chicago. Rooh in West Loop will feature them every now and then, as will Vajra (West Town Restaurant has been closed for on-site dining since the pandemic). At River North, Vermillion’s fusion cuisine will occasionally be featured on a tasting menu. Chef Jasmine Sheth hosts Tasting India pop-ups with ready-made meals. Meanwhile, South Asian center Devon Avenue has a different audience, and suburban DuPage County restaurants rarely offer any form of tasting menu.
Aman and Wazwan will not be fully operational until next year. Mohajir plans to close in January for a few weeks to allow designer Sidrah Atiq to properly rearrange the space.
Wazwan exists at a recognizable American food level, items that the children of immigrants like Mohajir grew up eating, but with adjustments. It’s a good way to avoid the cliché conversations about heat and spices, something that has dominated the Indian cuisine discourse for decades in America. But Mohajir doesn’t stop at sandwiches.
“It’s my job as an Indian chief to educate people on new things,” Mohajir says. “We can’t eat the same shit in 20 years.”
A man, 1742 W. Division Street, slated to debut Nov. 5, Wazwan is now open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.