What the Hell is This Thing?
2 weeks ago
Cumin has been hyped a lot in the press and blogosphere, most recently finishing seventh in Cincinnati Magazine's Top Ten Restaurants (March 2008). So, we decided to judge for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
Cumin is located in a small plaza bordering a residential neighborhood near the edge of Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout. The restaurant is easy to overlook while passing by, and though it doesn’t have much in the way of a parking lot, it wasn’t difficult to find an on-street space within a couple of blocks.
When we walked inside we were immediately impressed with the modern design and also surprised at the small size of the restaurant. With a small bar area on the right separated by a half-wall from the slightly larger restaurant area on the left, the layout was great given the size of the place. I fully concur with my esteemed partner’s opinion that the music level later in the evening was perfect. Loud enough to entertain to the bar; quiet enough not to interrupt the diners. Plus, it looked like there was a nice patio out front for when the weather warms up. It was too cold for us to enjoy it, but they had place settings out even though we didn’t see any heaters.
Our meal overall had very high highs and a pretty low low. We started with a phenomenal tandoori mushroom appetizer based on our server’s recommendation, which completely blew us away (see her description on right). The size was borderline big enough to share and certainly tamable by an individual.
From there we went to the “Chef’s Greens” salad. Notwithstanding the name, it was a relatively uninspiring dish that certainly didn’t speak to the chef’s best abilities. Primarily composed of a little lettuce with some cashews and pistachios, the only part of the salad you couldn’t easily make at home in 30 seconds was the tandoori apple. While tasty, the apple was far too small a part of the dish to prove much excitement, and the Madras dressing was barely noticeable on the plate. In short, while the salad doesn’t necessarily constitute a strike against Cumin, it certainly doesn’t match the hype.
Our main dish (chickpeas) and the black-pepper and garlic naan were much more appetizing. Flavorful, rich, and well balanced, these dishes were exactly the quality we had hoped for from such positive restaurant reviews. The rice and chickpeas were cooked perfectly and the seasoning in the sauce was excellent.
Then there was dessert. Despite my date warning that Indian restaurant desserts are often too unusually seasoned to really satisfy, we just couldn’t resist a “Freshly Baked Soft Molten Chocolate Cake.” My mouth was watering just reading the name, so naturally we ordered one to share. The suspense built even more when our server came by and placed two spoons on the table—a very positive sign for a “molten” cake. The dessert arrived in two pieces on a rectangular dish. The first was a coffee-cup with an obvious chocolate cake baked inside. The second piece was a “white wine-saffron poached seckel pear” neatly slivered and spread next to the cup.
We each grabbed our spoons and went straight for the chocolate, scooping up a somewhat drier than expected piece of crust. Our first reaction was “Ouch! Hot!,” followed by being unimpressed by the dessert. But knowing this was “molten” cake, we knew the best was yet to come. Or so we thought. A few minutes later, having reached the bottom of the cup without finding anything remotely “molten” we reached a disappointing conclusion: the dessert had been so overcooked that any “molten” chocolate had simply baked into an unimpressive, overly hot, dry cake—bad enough we decided we had to go out for a second dessert because we couldn’t end the meal like that! Off to Awakenings we went...
We were impressed as soon as we walked into Cumin. It bills itself as “Indian-Fusion,” and the décor is modern with a slight Indian flair. Looking around, we were not surprised that it has made Cincinnati Magazine’s list of top ten restaurants in Cincinnati. We had early reservations; we made them a few hours before and they would not give us anything later, but the restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived around 6 on a Saturday night. By 7:30, it was still not full, but filling fast. Around 7, live music started in the bar area, but it was music of an ideal nature for a restaurant: loud enough to provide entertainment at the bar and some atmosphere throughout the restaurant, but quiet enough that we could continue our conversation at the table.
We asked the waiter for recommendations on appetizers. He suggested the tandoori mushrooms, even before he knew that one of us eats vegetarian. We took his suggestion—and we were thrilled that we did! There is no understating how much we loved this appetizer. The six large mushrooms were cooked in a tandoori sauce and placed around the edge of the dish. In the middle were two sauces, a tamarind date sauce and a mint chutney. We both preferred the tamarind date sauce, but both were outstanding. Neither one of us expected to be blown away by this dish, but we both were, which certainly raised the bar for the rest of dinner.
The awesome appetizer was followed by a decent salad, but it was not nearly as good or as exciting as the mushrooms. For our main course, we split Chana Pindi (a chickpea dish) and garlic and pepper naan. Both were excellent. The chickpeas were delicious, although because they were lacking in the surprise factor of the mushrooms, we didn’t get quite as excited about them. The naan was fantastic: flavorful and soft, exactly as it should be! As far as dessert, see the description to my left. My only comment: I was skeptical about getting my kind of chocolaty, rich dessert at an Indian restaurant in the first place.
The service was, well, technically flawless. Our waiter appeared when we needed him, and disappeared when we didn’t. He made some wonderful recommendations. Except that he really seemed to have a brick wall for a personality. The plates (which were funky-modern—I loved them) had far more personality than our waiter. I didn’t see a smile the entire evening, which was a bit off-putting. The owner was visible the entire evening. He was sometimes near the hostess stand, sometimes greeting diners who he recognized, and sometimes wandering around the empty tables, straightening a plate or a chair here and there. However, he never approached any of the tables. We kept waiting for him to come over and greet us or another table, and he never did. It felt like the staff was following a set of rules to a tee, but they needed to loosen up.
The food is great! Go for the food, go for the ambience, go for the décor. Ignore the staff; they will ignore you anyway, unless you need something. It is a great restaurant for a date or a small group, but in the small dining room, a large or noisy group would be overwhelming and distracting to other diners. And I’ll pass on our waiter’s recommendation: order the mushrooms!