Drive You Mild

Michael Nagrant / 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 Bogart on a particularly chill night at the Cafe Americain*. 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

*when I initially wrote this review, I made an allusion to wanting to feel like Churchill commanding a verandah. When I think of cigars, gin, bowler hats, etc., I think of Churchill who once said gin saved more lives than doctors. Evoking that was my only intent. However, I should have also thought about the pain and suffering Churchill’s policies created during his colonial rule of India. That I did not, is a function of privilege. I apologize for any pain I may have caused or evoked by using that original description and have changed the line as a result.