Wazwan, the ambitious South Asian restaurant that popped up in August in Wicker Park, is permanently staying 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 plated fare, from delicate momos to specialized halal cuisine from South India’s Chettinad region.
Dinner service debuts November 5 at 1742 W. Division Street and is reservation only featuring a modern Indian 10-course tasting menu. The evening service, served inside the rear carriage house, is called Aman. To start, there will be one seating for 25 people per night with an additional seating eventually added. Reservations will go live on Monday via Tock.
The opening date is special for South Asians as November 4 is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The holiday can be an auspicious time for all faiths within the culture. Mohajir, who is Muslim, is planning a special vegetarian menu for the day after so diners can celebrate. Traditionally, Diwali meals are meat free, and while Mohajir is respectful of that, he’s also offering meaty supplemental courses for those who want to celebrate differently.
Moving to Wicker Park is a shift from Mohajir who was under contract to open the restaurant at another space. After problems with construction at a Ukrainian Village space a few blocks south, and seeing how pop-up service moved smoothly over the last two months, Mohajir elected to move all operations to Wicker Park. Aman is among Eater Chicago’s most anticipated openings of the year.
Mohajir left the finance world for restaurants and pursued food, working at the Pump Room and as an apprentice at world-famous Gaggan in Bangkok. The industry challenges of COVID-19 have weighed on the Wazwan team, but Mohajir is thankful for shedding the nomadic life.
“We’re here to stay,” Mohajir says. “It’s weird to say, but after four years we finally have a permanent address.”
The Wazwan space reveals a side alleyway that leads into a small courtyard flowing into the carriage house and better suited for Mohajir’s vision of two drastically 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 retain a bombastic atmosphere in front, hoping diners feel a bit of the hustle while walking along 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 which is a mix of influences, something Mohajir and chef du cuisine Chris De La Cueva have leaned into. De La Cueva’s Filipino roots are shown 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 dinner pop-up. He would later develop fast-casual fare for a food stall at Politan Row food hall in West Loop.
“The chicken sandwich wasn’t meant to be what it became,” Mohajir says.
But during a pandemic where carryout food reigned, that chicken sandwich was rather valuable. Stil, Mohajir has always had bigger dreams. He demonstrated that with one particular pop-up that drew especially long lines. Mohajir had tracked down a quality supply of halal brisket. Barbecue aficionados know finding a good source of traditional brisket is hard enough.
One new dish that Mohajir is particularly excited about is a wild mushroom black truffle korma. Mushrooms are underutilized in Indian cuisine. Part of that is a lack of a quality supply. Some of it is reluctance by vegetarians who claim mushrooms have a texture that reminds them of meat.
“We’ve always had a weird agenda against mushrooms,” Mohajir says.
He’s using morel mushrooms and turning the dish vegan, dropping ghee for coconut milk and cashew butter: “We thrive on not dumbing down the food,” he adds.
There’s also a bread basket of Indian flatbreads featuring a saffron sheermal roti and a medley of pickles including mango pequin-chilli achar. Mohajir likens it to a Midwestern supper club’s relish tray.
Indian tasting menus aren’t abundant in Chicago. Rooh in West Loop will offer them from time to time, as did Vajra (the West Town restaurant has been closed for on-site dining since the pandemic). In River North, Vermillion’s fusion fare will on occasion break out a tasting menu. Chef Jasmine Sheth holds Tasting India pop-ups with coursed-out meals. Meanwhile, South Asian center Devon Avenue has a different audience, and suburban restaurants in DuPage County rarely offer any form of tasting menu.
Aman and Wazwan won’t be fully operational until next year. Mohajir plans on closing in January for a few weeks to allow designer Sidrah Atiq to properly remodel the space.
Wazwan exists on a level of recognizable American food, items children of immigrants like Mohajir grew up eating, but with tweaks. It’s a good away to avoid cliched conversations about heat and spice, something that’s dominated the discourse on Indian food for decades in America. But Mohajir isn’t satisfied with just sandwiches.
“It’s my job as an Indian chef to educate people on new stuff,” Mohajir says. “We can’t be eating the same shit 20 years from now.”
Aman, 1742 W. Division Street, planned for a November 5 debut for dinner, Wazwan now open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.