No Junk In This Trunk

Michael Nagrant / 11.12.19

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;”

-Theodore Roosevelt

Almost two years in to my experiment as an “independent” food critic, there has been sweat, and blood. Or, at least blood sausage.  There certainly have been failure, errors, and shortcoming. But, what of it? I ask myself daily, as a critic, and also, as a human, does any of it matter?

I assure, you my devotions and enthusiasms, as they relate to food, have never been greater.

But, the sacrifice is also greater. No longer a gentleman of the expense account, it is my bank account that dwindles with each repast.

I am firmly committed to anonymity as many of my peers take victory laps on the circuit of media dinners, tilting their ever-wetted beaks toward the dole of comped meals.

No longer beholden to star ratings, I wonder often of the utility of the negative review.

In a world where Yelp shorthand and the ephemeral TikTok trick is emperor, my long-windedness is affliction.

For everything I don’t know, I am positive that this mental fluff, at first a gauzy cotton candy of confusion, sublimates eventually into an impenetrable existential destroyer.

That being said, what I also know, as the man says: those who aren’t busy being born, are busy dying.

I know that to be for something, sometimes you have to be against something else.

And so, like a yeasted dough, still, I rise.

But where to find that starter?

The fermentation agent, as it has always been, is the possibility of telling a story. Without a tale, there is nothing.

And at Grand Trunk Road, the south Asian restaurant in Lakeview, nothingness creeps. It manifests in the haunted empty dining room, where framed photos tilt slightly askew, like they’ve been shaken by a secret earthquake.

You would think an empty dining room would be a jackpot, like a whole row to yourself on a transcontinental flight, but it feels like a coffin.

Surely, this is because the food is bad and the service inhospitable.

It is not. Grand Trunk might be serving the best Indian/Pakistani fare in Chicago. But that is also its cross.

European cuisines, French, Italian, etc., have escaped low price, low quality marginalization, probably because they have been promulgated by white faces. Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean etc., have also had their inventive and luxury-priced moments. It should be noted however that in too many cases, those transformations have often been led by white savior chefs who grace the cover of every major food magazine.

Comparatively, the rise of South Asian food as a premiere cuisine has struggled in America. In London, Gymkhana and Jitin Joshi wowed Michelin, and Dishoom rules. But, here, Floyd Cardoz and Madhur Jaffrey’s legacies are less clear. Nik Sharma, who writes incredible cookbooks, and Maneet Chauhan, of Chopped, and once of the genre-defying Vermillion, stand tall on those giants’ shoulders, but they are also not in the conversation, yet, with say St. David Chang. Diners pacified on cheap deli containers of delivery butter chicken have had little appetite for South Asian culinary invention, thus far.

Those who desire $2 samosa, also want them shipped out in tiny identifiable biodegradable boxes. This makes it especially hard for a guy with a rich dual identity like Grand Trunk owner/chef Behzad Kahn, a man from Pakistan with roots in India, who serves a menu that, like its namesake highway, winds through the cuisines of Lahore and Delhi, to break through.

Kahn saved for twelve years to open this restaurant, while toiling in Chicago kitchens like Topolobampo.  His chapli kebab, a minced lamb patty bursting with chili, cumin, and pomegranate, adorned with swooshes of sweet and spicy chutney, is plated on a slate that Richard Serra might claim as one of his sculptural masterpieces.

If you’re vegetarian but want the same presentation and similar flavor, sub in the fluffy potato cloud that is aloo tiki. I know this dish is good, because, as a gesture of hospitality and because they were out of some other dishes we tried to order, the kitchen sent it gratis to our table.

Leopard-spotted naan, baked in an ultra-hot tandoor, features a pillowy center and a shatter-crisp exterior. If you’re a baller, it comes in truffle-flavor.

Nehari features silky beef swimming in a ginger-spiced bath of fennel and chili-spiked gravy.

Crab masala a soulful stew of coconut, tomato, and mustard, is reminiscent of makhani or butter, but the generous hunks of sweet crab are more satisfying than the shriveled rubbery chicken used at so many other places.  The masala is Simon Biles-balanced, redolent with pie spice and perfect salt, the kind of soothing brew I desired, but never got, when I cracked open that butter chicken calzone at Superkhana International.

The kadhi pakora, a yellow yogurt curry needed salt, but I loved the sweet finishing lilt of caramelized onion. One other quibble here is that the vegetable pakoras should probably be served on the side. They get too soggy sitting in the bowl.

Baingan bharta, eggplant in sweet and sour ginger chili sauce, an incredible dish I once had at spot in Toronto, is tough to find, so I was looking forward to ordering it when I scanned the Grand Trunk menu online. Despite, being a Thursday, and being the only diners in the restaurant, the Grand Trunk folks informed me they were out. In fact, they were out of multiple dishes I tried to order. It’s tough to change the world if you’re forced by a chana masala-adoring public to make Sophie’s choices just to keep your overhead low to survive.

Any disappointment here is tempered by a slew of delightfully-named cocktails like the Naked and Famous in Mumbai, featuring mezcal, yellow chartreuse, aperol, and lime, a slightly bitter, but fruity and bright antidote to all those cloying shelf-stable margaritas you’ve been forced to guzzle at your tipsy aunt’s annual tiki-themed barbecue.

If it were up to me, someday Kahn will be as well-known as Paul Kahan. And so, today, as self-doubting as I am about what it means to be a critic in 2019, what I do know is that Grand Trunk is what I am for. It is my great enthusiasm, my great devotion.

Grand Trunk Road is located at 1417 W. Fullerton in Chicago.