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Twice Spice – Chicago Magazine

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John Kessler Photo: Mihoka Abunai

Editor’s note: This is the first review of the restaurant we have published in two years. It is no coincidence that this break coincided with a pandemic. All the uncertainty in the industry – restaurants struggling to stay afloat, switched to takeaway food – has made critics feel unfit. But now that everything is stabilizing and places are opening up (and reopening), we believe that visitors can take advantage of the help to understand the new landscape.

Enter John Kessler. Our new critic brings in-depth knowledge of food that is rare. He attended culinary school and worked as a chef and chef in Washington, DC, and Denver before becoming a writer. Among other concerts he performed duties Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionLunch critic 18 years. Since moving to Chicago in 2015, he has been a regular contributor to this magazine. (You may remember him as the guy who caused a lot of anger with his 2018 essay, “The party is over,” about how the local restaurant scene has lost its luster.)

“I go to every review as if I’m writing a letter to a friend and describing the experience,” says Kessler of his approach to criticism. “It’s important to find that through an honest assessment.” He will use his reviews to evaluate restaurants in the broader context of the city’s dining industry and start a dialogue with the chefs. “The chefs carefully analyze the reviews, and in my experience, they appreciate if they have an honest broker.”
– Terence Noland, Editor-in-Chief

InThe hated structure that stood on West Division Street, 1742, was lost in time, replaced by the thin shop window that now occupies that address. But probably it was grand enough to have a significant carriage behind. In this back building that preceded the Great Fire of Chicago, Zubayr Mahajir found a home for an Indian tasting menu, which he started as a pop-up window. Meanwhile, the shop window is shrinking behind tables with Pan-Asian street food that he has been collecting for boxing over the last two difficult years.

Both places – Coach House from Vazvan behind, Vazvan in front – showcase the cuisine that Mahajir synthesized from his life experience: his grandmother taught him to cook with his nose; training in gourmet cuisines, including the now-closed Bangkok Gaggan, once the world’s top-ranked modern Indian restaurant; to study the culinary history of South Asia; and an international childhood that brought him from Chennai, India, to Qatar, to Orlando Park.

Coach House, open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, offers an eight-course menu ($ 150). Here Mahajira’s cuisine flirts with brilliance. Its sense of seasoning is impeccable and many of its fragrances have this wonderful waiting time when they open. But I find some of the courses a little awkward and they reflect the pace of the meal. In addition, the setting and service may not be sufficiently transportable to justify the high price. It depends on your point of view. For me, this vital new restaurant should support and monitor the growth of its potential.

The meal at Coach House begins with pure joy – fresh tortilla cakes with a constellation of items that can be continued. Here there is a viscous piece of honeycomb, a slice of date oil and pickles, spicy and unusual. From all of Mahajir’s life experiences, this is Arland Park, which runs here. He admits that he based this plate on a warm bread basket with whipped honey in a suburban family restaurant.

The meal also comes to a climax. There will be fish soup, perhaps layered black cod, anointed with tomato chutney in the style of Chetinad, which is buttoned and sprinkled with all the warm spices. And then there is the magnum opus of Mahajir, the duck of Numidia. (What is Numidia? I’ll take “Ancient Kingdoms of North West Africa” ​​for $ 200, Alex.) He found a scheme of this recipe in a scientific text and was intrigued by the ingredients of a sauce that combines leeks, dates and pine nuts. It combines a sauce with a balancing polarity of red wine vinegar and fish sauce and combines it with duck confit with a crispy skin. All this adorns the bed of the hitch, made of black lentils and nut matte red rice. This is the unicorn dish that is equally intriguing and incredibly delicious.

But when the endgame of this meal is similar to the exhilarating fourth of the symphony, the middle feels resinous and insecure. Fish crudo in oolong tea broth is fun, but so rich in chili and flavoring that you can’t find this tea-smelling tea. Momo crab in a black garlic wrapper? Also interesting if you are not too diligent looking for crab flavor. What to cook with beet lights? These rice cakes are similar to super hard polenta and they come in a glossy beet oil the color of fake blood from a 60s movie. You have to indeed like beets.

Many dishes Mahajir delivers himself, so you will learn a lot about their preparation and inspiration. He has a winning charm and drops f-bombs with such ease that you feel among friends. If you want to feel among the professionals in the field of service, you can give up an empty glass of water or an unworn table. You may also feel that the room is a little cold if the weather is not conducive. On one visit came a cake stuck to a plate of almost frozen oil.

And one last question: the vegetarian menu Mohajir (also $ 150) replaces the facsimile flora with their protein counterparts. Instead of a comb the potato fondant turns out. Instead of duck legs you will get a leather bunch of fried mushrooms. I thought the food was quite satisfying, but the high price required more imagination and features.

Left: THC Sando and beef nihari momos
Left: beef nihari momos and THC Sando

Unlike Coach House, Wazwan is an easy date, lunch or dinner, weekdays or weekends. You can come with six packs and settle for a great sandwich or a bowl of goodies and rice. Mushroom food made with cashew oil, coconut milk and various mushrooms, both stewed and fried, is pure decadence in the vegan style. Beef nihari momos with Sichuan peppers are very spicy and sticky to meat juices. And there is that great Chettinad masala that is served with chicken and basmati rice. A special impression applies to Mahajira’s signature dish, THC Sando. With tandoor honey glaze, pickles and gochujang aioli it sounds like a hot, happy mess for stonemasons. Instead, it’s the most carefully built and seasoned fried chicken sandwich in town.

Mahajir is so good at cooking meat that I would like to see him try a real vazvan – a Kashmiri festival that includes dozens of dishes, mostly meat. I almost regret that I am just getting acquainted with his work in today’s restaurant climate. Not that I don’t like a fancy tasting menu or a bomb sandwich, but I miss the days when chefs of his caliber opened up places with small plates and noisy bars filled with crowded snacks. Such restaurants rarely open. They don’t make money, they can’t be staffed, they just don’t work.

In this way, Mahajir does everything he can, demonstrating to many happy visitors his unique perspective in the form of light daily food in Wazwan. Meanwhile, those who want to spend on Coach House will see what he is capable of.

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