Diner: Fusion Twists

At Cumin, Indian fare celebrates nutrients, natural flavors and fresh ingredients

My sister is telling me she wants to wrap herself up in a gigantic roti for her boyfriend on Valentine's Day. We're grinning and giddy, but sitting up straight. This is no delirium, but a state of heightened awareness akin to nirvana. We've just polished off four courses at Cumin, a six-week-old Indian café with a fast-growing enthusiast base that now numbers two more.

I'm reminded of the contemporary Indian fare I found in London: classical dishes from all regions of India with creative fusion twists and things you wouldn't expect, like seared ahi tuna and blanched (as opposed to overcooked) vegetables.

Even if you're one of those who generally steers clear of Indian food because it "doesn't agree with you," I think you'll be surprised by Cumin. This is healthy food that celebrates the nutrients and natural flavors of consistently fresh ingredients. Everything is subtle; nothing is over-spiced.

In addition to extensive seafood, lamb, duck and chicken specialties, vegetarians will find a selection no less varied or inspired. Many items, like Tofu Jhalfrezi ($8.95), are vegan-friendly.

Beware of salivation while perusing the menu. Salmon with cilantro chutney wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Lamb curry with apricots and herbs. A semolina, cumin and ginger crêpe stuffed with spiced potatoes. If a description of something as unadventurous sounding as Butter Chicken ($11.95) is making your mouth water, you know you're in for a treat.

Owner and chef Yajan Upadhyaya (pronounced oo-PAHD-ee-ay) and his wife, April, moved from Manhattan to Cincinnati to open Cumin. Inside the former East Hyde Park location of Manna Vegetarian, the couple has created a minimalist, modern atmosphere (très feng shui) that's well suited to the spatial limitations of the small dining room. The kitchen is visible through a window curtained by rods of kabob meat, awaiting the tandoor oven. Nearby is a statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity. Pastel walls are punctuated with tiny prints of colorful Indian postage stamps. And the atmosphere is completed by the vibrant fabrics of the traditionally costumed staff, ever on the move ensuring that no detail is unattended. Our server is thoroughly knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic about the food, so we're happy to take many of his recommendations for our meal, which we decide will be completely vegetarian.

We start with Imli Baingan ($3.95) and Bhel Poori ($4.50). The former is a platter of thin eggplant chips sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and blanketed in a rich date and tamarind sauce, a wonderful balance of burnt sweetness and sour undertones, offset by fresh cilantro. Bhel Poori consists of potatoes, red onions and herbs with various crisps like puffed rice, broken poori bread and chickpea vermicelli.

We have Rasam ($3.75), a spicy yellow lentil soup, alongside Papri Chaat ($3.95), a red potato and chickpea salad tossed in seasoned yogurt and tamarind dressing. Pomegranate seeds, sprinkled like jewels, add a touch of tartness and fresh tomato slices make a delightful palate cleanser.

From the entrées, we select my sister's favorite, Palak Paneer ($8.95). Cumin executes it wonderfully — hands down, my sister avers, the best she's ever had. The bittersweet aromatics of fenugreek wafting up from the swamp-green mound of cooked spinach and paneer (soft, homemade cheese with a consistency like firm tofu) is affirmation of the fine line between earthy and heavenly food.

Only slightly less amazing is the Avial Malabar ($9.95): carrots, eggplant, green beans, sweet potatoes and plantains, simmered in a mustard-based curry, with a coconut yogurt sauce that softens the spices. Accompaniments include basmati rice with saffron and warm Roti ($2.50).

To finish we have mild homemade Chai ($2.50) and Hot Tea ($1.50). My sister is enslaved-to-the-last-spoonful by her Kulfi ($4.25): mint green pistachio ice cream of gelato-quality creaminess, flavored with saffron and cardamom. It's too sweet for me when I try it alongside my Kesari Kheer ($4.25), a delicate rice pudding also flavored with cardamom nuts and saffron. Speaking of which, here is the single flaw of my meal: I ordered my pudding hot, but it came cold. The server probably didn't hear my request over the din of a dining room that's fully occupied for the duration of our nearly two-hour, weeknight stay.

Four courses and boxes of leftovers later, the only damage we've managed to do to our pocketbooks is $44.25. This, of course, is free of alcohol expenses, as Cumin has yet to acquire a liquor license. Guests are welcome to bring their own wine or beer, as many neighboring tables on our visit have done. Paying so little feels like thievery. Needless to say, it's a crime I plan to commit often. ©

Cumin
Go: 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park

Call: 513-871-8714

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-3 p.m. Sunday; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday

Prices: Inexpensive to reasonable

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Everything — cows are considered sacred, not succulent, in India

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