A trio of experienced Chicago restaurant industry members is opening a bar along Division Street in Wicker Park. Wazwan, chef Zubair Mohajir’s casual Indian restaurant, will yield over the summer to Lilac Tiger, a collaboration between Mohajir, Arami’s Ty Fujimura, and Kimski chef Won Kim.
Lilac Tiger will serve Wazwan’s trademarks like the tandoori honey fried chicken sandwich, momos, and a vada-style burger. Mohajir will augment the menu with new small bites from South and Southeast Asia. The chef says Wazwan outgrew its space and he’ll eventually look for a new home for that operation: “The space wasn’t meant to be an a la carte restaurant,” he says.
Meanwhile, the fine dining and reservation-only restaurant in the rear, The Coach House by Wazwan, with Chicago’s first South Asian tasting menu, will continue operations, and the new liquor license will enable the soon-to-be-former BYO to offer cocktail and wine pairings. For his work, the James Beard Foundation named Mohajir a semifinalist this year for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
The three anticipate a quick turnaround with minor construction that would close Wazwan for a few days. Mohajir says he’s inspired seeing the recent wave of success of bars in Chinatown, headlined by Nine Bar which serves Chinese street food and creative cocktails, some with tea and Sichuan peppercorns. For Mohajir, Chinatown’s additions presented him with a new perspective on how he could showcase a South Asian-influenced drink program. It’s not unusual, as LA’s Piija Palace shows.
Armed with Fujimura’s expertise at running venues like Small Bar in Logan Square, and Kim’s creative energies as an artist (he’s painted murals inside Wazwan) who worked for years at Kimski and Marz Community Brewing on the South Side, Lilac Tiger intends to make the best use of Wazwan’s narrow space. They’ll stock Scotches from India and a few from Thailand. Mohajir became fond of a few while working at Gaggan in Bangkok. Look for small-batch cocktails with a drink list from David Mor, a veteran bartender planning on opening his own Bucktown bar, Truce.
Fujimura is quick to point out that the bar’s name has a cross-cultural appeal, meaning something different for the three who all have Asian upbringings. Mohajir was born in India and Kim in Korea. Fujimura grew up in Indiana with a Japanese father born in Hawai’i.
Restaurant owners continue to figure out life during the pandemic, trying to make sense of customer habits and how to keep their businesses afloat. In Wicker Park, along Division Street, bars like Bangers & Lace, Little Victories, and Queen Mary continue to be a draw, even as more and more strollers roll up and down the street.
For Mohajir, change was needed to survive. Booze-free options are available at the Coach House, and customers are free to bring their own wine and beer to complement the tasting menu. The sober movement has made spirit-free drinks more acceptable and available, but those beverages can’t match the profits that selling a bottle of nice wine provides.
As Mohajir offered the first tasting menu to explore South Asia in Chicago, other restaurants have since opened (including Indienne) and diners who pay hundreds of dollars for dinner expect luxuries like wine and cocktails programs. Not all of the restaurant’s original investors wanted to sell alcohol. Islam forbids drinking alcohol, even though many followers in the Western world imbibe. For a tasting menu restaurant vying for Beard Awards and Michelin stars, alcoholic beverage pairings can help sway judges.
“I think the addition of cocktails and such can give them a chance on that strip,” Kim says.
Mohajir, who’s Muslim and grew up in Qatar, has already seen some fellow Muslims question if Wazwan was truly halal as the restaurant didn’t pursue certifications that require annual renewal payments. He took full control of the restaurant last year which allowed him to pursue the partnership with Fujimura and Kim.
The chef also realized he needed operational help. Fujimura says Mohajir showed a maturity many chefs don’t possess in reaching out and understanding they can’t do everything by themselves. Arami consistently rates as one of Chicago’s best sushi spots while Small Bar has become a Logan Square institution. Wazwan took over the Lincoln Square space that Fujimura’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Entente, vacated when it moved to River North in 2019. A one-month stay turned into a four-month residency.
Kim, who introduced the two, recently launched a new menu at his Bridgeport restaurant after taking five months away from daily kitchen chores. That time was designed as a reset. Kim wanted to pursue more than cooking and has been dabbling in consulting. Wazwan presents a new challenge. And if they’re successful, it would lead to future team-ups.
Fujimura is taking things slow and doesn’t want to inflate any aspirations of the trio forming a restaurant group. They’re trying to embrace a DIY vibe to combat the large entities that tend to rule the city’s dining landscape.
Lilac Tiger, 1742 W. Division Street, planned for a summer opening.