Drive You Mild

09.12.19

IKEA makes a lot of shitty things, things that you buy because you don’t have a lot of money. You shouldn’t do this. You should instead sacrifice, scrape, and save, and buy the thing you really want. It will reward you forever instead of ending up as a source of anxiety, regret, and dumpster dreck.

IKEA also makes a lot of cool, legitimately well-designed, visually anyway, things. Some of those things are lamps. But, even when an IKEA light fixture looks cool, it almost always has a flaw. One design issue that bothers me, is that because amateur DIY folks aren’t always great at electrical work, IKEA often adds plugs and toggle switches to lamps that should just be hardwired. I am an amateur, but I have learned basic wiring. Plug-in ceiling lamps annoy me. I want to use light switches, not buttons that are inevitably hanging near the floor, or behind a curtain, forcing me to bend over – another terrorism, that as I grow older, has the double threat of inducing nightmares of me ending up on the floor holding a broken lamp, smashing the button on my medical bracelet, screaming, “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

IKEA matters here to this particular restaurant review, because, for the reasons just laid out, I have spent at least thirty minutes staring and contemplating a bunch of small dome lights hanging over the bar at Superkhana International (I love the name, as it feels like it channels some super secret level circuit in Mario Kart), a new mod Indian-ish spot in Logan square. I do not know if they are IKEA fixtures, but they have exposed individual toggle switches and cords. I am transfixed and distracted. Does the bartender turn each toggle off at the end of the night? Are they plugged in to a central outlet where they can be turned off simultaneously?

This is something I am paying attention to because it’s characteristic of the general “unfinished” aesthetic of the place: lots of hard industrial surfaces, painted rough brick, golden plywood, neon signs and pink accents. Superkhana looks like a 1980s loft, or, a rough mock-up of The Max diner from Saved by the Bell draped with some vaguely subcontinent-channeling fabrics. It’s ‘Grammable, but it is not comfortable.

The thing is you don’t pay attention to aesthetics, or you hardly mind them, if everything else is going well.

It is not.

There is a cocktail on the menu called G(reens) and tonic made with Apalogue celery root liqueur, fresh greens, and herbs. I ask the server what it tastes like.

He answers, “Herby”.

I ignore this and imagine the drink might actually provide a combination of refreshment and bitterness, fortitude, and citrus, and that a sip or two will make me feel like Churchill commanding a veranda. It is instead flat and syrupy, tasting like a cucumber pickle where they forgot the vinegar.

Kochumbar salad, a mélange of cucumber, sun gold tomatoes, and puffed rice is also not the garden breeze I am craving in this blazing summer heat. The cukes are snappy, but the tomatoes are insipid, the puffed rice eat like styrofoamy take-out Chinese Mongolian beef garnish.

The Bombay sandwich, aka “psychedelic grilled cheese with…many, many things” is better. It is at least a contrast of crispy and gooey. But it is overwrought, stuffed with crunchy Indian street snacks and mango powder and jalapenos. If your tastes in experimental music composition skew toward say Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, you may love this sandwich, but if you’re expecting say, The Beatle’s “A Day in the Life”, you will likely be crying tears in to the sandwich’s gloppy side dip which eats like a combo of borscht and Panda Express sweet and sour sauce.

You will find solace in Superkhana’s French Fry Manchurian. A riff on cauliflower-laden Gobi Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese classic, Superkhana’s deep fried spuds quivering with aioli and overrun with sesame, and scallions is a full on menage-a-carbs.

Vindaloo, a classic Goan dish, is often sultry, sporting a fiery kiss of vinegar and chili, but at Superkhana it’s flimsy pork belly roulades growing soggy in a pool of what is supposed to be Champagne vinegar and guajillo chili, but tastes like an unsalted Bordelaise made with vegan demi-glace.

By now, you have likely heard about Superkhana’s $19 Hot Pocket, calzone stuffed with butter chicken. The presentation is glorious, a puffy naan-football so large, Tom Brady’s G.O.A.T.y hands would struggle to palm it. The contrast of crisp caramelized leopard spots and the cloud-like crumb are pretty damn awesome. But, slice the thing open, and the butter chicken inside that oozes out tastes like someone backed a dump truck of garam masala into some tomato sauce and forgot the salt.

Normally I’d use this space to tell you about dessert, but now I’m just too depressed. It may seem like I’m being gleeful or coy. I’m not. This one was tough for me. One of Superkhana’s partners, Jason Hammel, is a guy I admire greatly, who I believe is one of, if not the most thoughtful and generous and talented chefs working in Chicago. I haven’t written a review since early August because I dreaded being so candid about the work of someone I respect so much. But, they say race car drivers who think about danger are already dead. Similarly, a critic who can’t be honest is too.

Superkhana International is located at 3059 W. Diversey in Chicago

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4 thoughts on “Drive You Mild

  1. Thanks for your feedback. I worked in a restaurant for seven years. My review is not discounting anyone’s hard work. I know it’s backbreaking etc. I did not ding anyone for authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t really exist or it’s a moving target. What I did ding was that I really want assertive flavors from a vindaloo, and I kept taking bites of that plate wondering what I was missing, there was no punch at all. I love the idea of the calzone. It’s a great idea, but 50% of the idea wasn’t executed well. That being said, when something was good, like the Manchurian, I was positive, so this wasn’t all one sided. My review was spirited, but not mean spirited. Mean spirited is Bourdain calling Emeril an Ewok or Alice Waters Pol Pot. Yes, I could have written the dipping sauce tasted like too sweet beets. But, borscht with Panda Express sweet and sour is more imaginative and punches the idea home more effectively. It is creative, but it is not mean. I would never say, hey man, you should never put butter chicken in a calzone if you want to be a good chef. In fact you should try stuff like that to take it to the next level and differentiate yourself as a chef. Same goes if you’re a writer – be creative and develop your own voice. If I didn’t do that, my reviews would all say: It was good. It was bad. It was do die for. delish. OMG. etc. I also live in Logan Square and own all kinds of IKEA too, so it’s not a dig on people in Logan Square who own Ikea. It is actually a meditation on detail orientation in build out. If you install something with an exposed switch that isn’t particularly exciting from a design perspective, are you going to get the other details of a restaurant right? We can debate whether that’s germane or true or whatever, but that’s where I was going. I am a writer covering the restaurant, so unfortunately I can’t just tell the chef/owner what I think in secret and let it be that. I am writing this as a service to readers saying hey if you drop $200 of your own money, this is what you might get. I am a supporter of the scene, but I am not a consultant or friend. That being said if a chef asks me “what do you think”, I will tell them the straight feedback every time – but it will not change the fact that this feedback will also go in the review. I do this all the time. You can ask Felipe Ospina at Cafe Cancale – all the negative stuff I said in the review, I mentioned to him when he recognized me and asked me what I thought. In this case, I did not have that opportunity. I did only dine once, but ate most of the menu. I would love to dine multiple times, but this is my own money, and like a regular person off the street who goes to a restaurant, spends their own and has an ok experience, even in the first month, I will not likely be willing to spend my own money there again. However, unlike those diners I do have a track record of going back to spots six months or even a year later to see if things have changed. I will write a new review or correct any changes that have happened. For example Clever Rabbit got a new chef so I took them off my “do not dine” list when they told me this. I did not like Bill Kim’s Urban Belly’s early on, but it became a favorite spot over time and I wrote about that often afterwards. I will no doubt go back to Superkhana given the strength of the team. And if I find it has changed, I will note that. As you point, out the place is packed, so what I say is just one voice. if it’s great, that will win out, not me. But, please note, I’m not just making up this experience to be entertaining and fun or vindictive. I wrote what I wrote, because I spent my own money and had an experience that did not meet my expectations, even if it was that one night only and only my table where that happened, it happened.

  2. As one who just recently had a terrific meal at Superkhana, and who loved the butter chicken calzone and the vindaloo (albeit, the reference to vindaloo was stretching it a bit), I am compelled to chime in. Restaurant work is hard and exponentially harder for independent operators who don’t have deep pockets, multimillion dollar design budgets, and who refuse to submit to the pay to play game for their wine and spirits programs in order to cut costs somewhere. Nowhere in the advanced publicity did they say this was going to be an authentic Indian restaurant. If it was that bad, wouldn’t it have been easier to voice your criticism to Jason Hammel personally to see if they can tweak a few things? I mean, seriously, the restaurant has been open less than two months and they’ve been mobbed ever since. It takes some time to iron out the kinks in any new restaurant. Finding good service is really hard these days and it takes time to find the perfect front of the house after initial turnover and many weeks of staff trainings. Your review was snarky and mean spirited, rather than constructive. The Ikea reference was just strange. This is Logan Square, after all, and most of the residents of this neighborhood have furnished their apartments with Ikea. Was this your first time eating here? You yourself can be quoted as saying this: “Because I’ll eat anything twice (you never know if the first dish was cooked right), I relish a lifetime of pursuing delicious second chances.”

  3. Having known someone who worked for a while in the IKEA returns department, your opening resonates. The rest of the article is, as always, brilliant. Reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist”–where Wilde notes that a skilled critic can take something unfortunate and use it to produce art. Also reminds me of why I’m a food historian and not a critic–telling the truth can be painful. But glad there is someone out there willing to do the hard work. Hope this helps guide them to necessary improvements.

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