Go: 3520 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; late night menu: 10:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday
Payment: Major credit cards accepted
Red Meat Alternatives: Numerous vegetarian, seafood and chicken dishes as well as salads
The nose knows food. My own is fond of the spice cumin. Its distinct, earthy aroma never fails to elicit the phrase, "Mmm, that smells good." Like the spice, Cumin Indian Fusion Cuisine proves itself distinctive, fearlessly tempting your schnoz and eyes before anything comes close to your mouth.
The restaurant's revamped look, a few doors down from the original location, shows off clean lines that evoke a Japanese aesthetic. Guests pass a Warli tribal art mural painted by Rekha Upadhyaya, the mother of chef/co-owner Yajan Upadhyaya, as they enter an intimate space with silver accents shimmering over the mostly black décor. A black slatted wall divides the room and encases a red-and-white neon sign blazing the restaurant's name.
The bar side pulsates with primary colors and music. Light from the sign reflects off the black oak tables and red leather bar stools cradle you while indulging in the usual poison or one of Cumin's signature cocktails like the Bollywood (a ginger infused pomegranate juice mixed with champagne; $8.50) or a Coconut Mojito (Cuban rum, Indian spice and coconut milk; $8.50).
Just as I began to regret our choice of a table by the bar, someone read my mind and decreased the decibels so I could hear Alex Mchaikhi, Upadhyaya's new co-owner, flirt good-naturedly with my friend.
A new place deserves a few new dishes, like the Chef's Greens salad ($6.25) with roasted apples and cashews, but Cumin also stays loyal to its longtime fans, offering Tandoori Mushrooms ($5.25), Pepper Eggplant ($11.95) and other "quintessentials" from the old menu.
We were first-timers, so my friends and I followed our host's advice, which proved to be excellent. We chose a bottle of the 2005 Spinyback Sauvignon Blanc Nelson New Zealand ($27) to go with our appetizers: Peshawari naan ($3.95) with nuts and golden raisins, Papri Chaat ($5.25) (chickpeas, potato and pomegranate seeds tossed with yogurt and a tamarind sauce) and Tandoori Tenders ($6.50) served with a trio of sauces: yogurt, coconut and mango chutney. The tandoori chicken was wicked, the flavor permeating the meat rather than stopping short at the surface like most dishes served under this name.
The deep dish of Papri Chaat, topped with glistening beads of pomegranate seeds and micro cilantro, was a work of art that quickly became edible art as we dug down to uncover crunchy wisps of a phyllo-like substance and chunks of red onion, potato and chickpeas.
Lovingly pulling his spoon from his mouth, my friend's husband, a chef himself, proclaimed that his Lamb Shank ($21.95) was the best he's tasted. The slow-braised meat had fallen from the bone and was served with haricot verts and rice topped with caramelized mushrooms and onions. (At a later visit my husband's lamb was served with bone intact. It wasn't quit as tender, but made for a much more dramatic presentation.)
My Quail Vindaloo ($15.50) hit the spot as well. Two halved and grilled birds top a pedestal of thin potato slices in a fiery sauce with enough kick to clear your sinuses, even in Cincinnati.
My friend, who ordered Chicken Biryani ($12.95), looked perplexed when her plate arrived. The dish lacked vegetables and came with a spicy, rich sauce with cardamom undertones. We chalked it up to fusion but later learned she actually was served Chicken Makhani -- a Tandoori chicken in a tomato cream sauce spiked with fenugreek ($14.95). Not what she ordered, but the table had no complaints.
Many of Upadhyaya's dishes appear deceivingly simple, just some vegetables or meat with rice. But the magic lies in the sauce. The Pepper Eggplant from my second visit that week (OK, so I'm hooked -- what of it?) came alive with a sesame peanut tamarind sauce. The black pepper warmed the middle of my tongue before intensifying and spreading to the outer reaches.
Unlike many Midwestern restaurants, Cumin puts just the right amount of food on your plate, which fortunately allows room for a house-made dessert. The Royale ($5.95), a chocolate hazelnut cream on a praline base and surrounded by spiced bittersweet chocolate sauce, was flecked with gold and perfect with an after-dinner coffee. The Kulfi ice cream ($4.95) satisfied the table's cardamom junkie with its bright flavor and crushed cashew, almond, pistachio and golden raisin topping.
Things were still jumping as we finally got ready to leave. The efficient, professional staff moved quickly in the crowded rooms, and the conversation shifted from 401Ks to Myspace as a young crowd descended, ready to take advantage of late-night menu items like Papad Tacos with braised goat ($6.95) and Curry Fries ($4.25).
Mmm, that tasted good. Hang on -- maybe I should just try one of those tacos before we head home. ©