Gundis is a Kurdish word for “villagers” that, when spoken in the direction of someone of good humor, is taken as a playful jab at his country roots. Mehmet Duzgun and Mehmet Yavuz are the two villagers behind the Gundis in Lakeview, the city’s sole Kurdish restaurant. The “village” they come from is really a small city called Nusaybin within the province of Mardin on Turkey’s southern border with Syria, but they didn’t meet until five years ago, after they’d arrived in Chicago independently.
Both know what it’s like to work in restaurants, here and back in Turkey. Yavuz, in fact, married into a restaurant family, and consequently his father-in-law is the new restaurant’s executive chef. Juan Gonzalez isn’t Kurdish, obviously—and neither is his daughter, general manager Denisse Gonzalez-Yavuz—but he’s worked in kitchens in southern California and Mexico for nearly 30 years, and while he directs that experience toward getting his son-in-law’s restaurant off the ground, he has a handful of capable Kurdish-Syrians helping him in his kitchen, people who happen to have escaped the most horrifying world conflict of the decade.
Apart from its singular position in the city’s restaurant scene, the Gundis is a cross-cultural family business that wouldn’t have launched without the benefit of relatively welcoming immigration policies.
I asked Duzgun if the food at the Gundis was similar to Turkish food, and if Kurdish food was different in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. (It is.) Actually, what a lot of people think of as Turkish food, he told me, is really Kurdish food in origin. I don’t have the scholarly boots on the ground to affirm that, and while the food at the Gundis is familiar, it’s unlike what you’re probably used to from your average Turkish restaurant.
The restaurant itself doesn’t look like what you’d expect from a Turkish spot either. Sun-brightened at lunchtime, candlelit at dinner, it’s a modern-looking dining space that betrays no folkloric hints of its origins, save for a few simple black-and-white renderings of Mardin.
But some of the food is familiar in form and practice. You can start meals off (or linger indefinitely) with a basket of puffy Kurdish flatbread baked in the kitchen that morning. Dredge it through a sampling of conventional mezes: hummus; grilled calamari; chewy, salty slabs of blistering grilled halloumi; or a deposit of ezme, the tomato-and-pepper mince shot through with isot, aka Urfa biber. That’s the crushed, raisiny, crimson pepper that’s the power behind the slow-building sweet heat that characterizes much of this food, from the lentil soup to the fried potatoes.
You’ll taste it in the light, tomatoey broth that bathes a brimming bowl of mussels. It’s impossible to miss in the garlic-lemon-butter sauce that drenches a pile of snappy crustaceans, a lip-smacking preparation that seems like a lost cousin to New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. For a cuisine that has its origins in landlocked regions, Kurdish food seems to have a way with seafood.
But not as much as it does with lamb, which appears among the main courses a half-dozen times, including a few visually striking preparations like the sac tawa, a sizzling circular steel plate piled with stir-fried meat, peppers, and tomatoes, a presentation much smaller than the traditional version, which can be large enough to accommodate nine or ten eaters. Lamb crowns the Mesopotamia, a monolithic mound of meat and rice doused with gravy. And it’s also at the core of the Mardin special, a signature dish of the region, featuring tender braised meat that forms the core of a fried-eggplant-wrapped sphere surrounded by oppositional deposits of tomato sauce, yogurt, parsley, and pickled cabbage. It’s a dramatic dish almost as sumptuous as a tomato-based stew, also named for the regional capital, that rests on a pile of what appears to be a thick, chunky baba ghanoush. In Mardin the eggplant element is called bajane brasti and (both here and there) it’s spiked with kaşar cheese (what some of us might recognize as kasseri), which lends a surprising and delicious sharpness to this old standby.
Meaty dishes abound on the Gundis’s menu—kebabs, steak, cheese-stuffed chicken breast—but a handful of vegetable-based mains are just as substantially satisfying. There’s a slick stew of eggplant, banana peppers, tomato, and onions on a raft of mashed potatoes. Similarly, tirsik features eggplant, carrots, bell peppers, and rice spiked with more isot.
Desserts include assorted Kurdish cookies, the flanlike caramelized milk pudding known in Turkish as kazandibi, and a Western innovation: thin crepes, stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with syrup, that the kitchen has dubbed “Kurdish baklava.”
The latter all figure into weekend brunch, which is something of a production at the Gundis, with florid pancakes and scrambles and a showstopping spread meant for two, featuring feta and kaşar cheese, olives, fruit jams, honey, butter, sesame butter, fried cheese rolls, eggs, french fries, and bread.
A liquor license enables the restaurant to serve a few basic beers and wines (something not frequently encountered in Kurdistan), but Kurdish and Turkish teas and coffees should be axiomatic with any sit-down at the Gundis. If by chance you’re nursing a hangover, a tall, bracing glass of purple şalgam, made from salted red carrots and accented with fermented turnip, will hit the spot.
The Gundis is a small door in Lakeview opening onto a part of the world where most of us have never been. The food that’s come through it is something to embrace. v