The 2012 Michelin Guide for Chicago area restaurants is now available and a handful of restaurants that we've tried in the past were mentioned in the Bib Gourmand category for being a great value in the eyes of the inspector. At a Bib Gourmand restaurant, two people can eat for under $40 and the restaurant represents a hidden culinary value. One such restaurant - Cumin - lies literally across the street from on of my dealers - Decibel Audio. A few weeks ago, I took a couple guys from Decibel Audio over there for dinner.
Cumin is a Nepalese restaurant that blends both modern Nepal cuisine and traditional Indian food with the common denominator being the spices that are prevalent in both societies - cumin, garlic, coriander and ginger. Nepalese cuisine is less spice oil-based, so it's not as spicy as you can find with some Indian restaurants.
Sanjeev Karmacharya opened the Wicker Park restaurant on Milwaukee Ave. (see map) about two years ago. His day job is as a software engineer, but his brother, Rajesh, had worked at the highly acclaimed Mt. Everest Nepalese/Indian restaurant in Evanston for a number of years. Rajesh Karmacharya, who like is brother is a native of Nepal, manages the restaurant along with Dipesh Kakshapati. The chef at Cumin, Min Thapa, had worked at Mt. Everest with Rajesh Karmacharya in the past, but had gone to work at a restaurant in Champaign before the brothers hired him to run the kitchen at Cumin. Right away, Cumin caught critics attention with their take on Nepalese food, something that there isn't a lot of around the Chicagoland area.
The first Michelin restaurant guide that was published for Chicago was last year. Cumin was named as a bib gourmand restaurant in that edition and was mentioned again in this year's edition. Adam, the manager at Decibel Audio, said they have a great lunch buffet for $11.95. "I've never seen the place less than half full," he told me. "They're always busy, day and night."
That evening was no exception. After closing the store at 7:00 p.m. and shutting things down for the day, we made our way across Milwaukee Ave. and went into Cumin. Even before walking in the door, we were pleasantly overwhelmed by the smell of spices outside the restaurant. The dining room was nearly full with a couple parties waiting at the bar for a table to open up. Chris, one of the sales guys at Decibel, was with us, so we took a spot at the bar and had a Kingfisher beer while we waited for a table to open up. After about 10 minutes, we were seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant. (Photo courtesy Citysearch)
Although Cumin is billed as a "modern" Nepalese restaurant, there's not a lot of modernity to the decor of the place. It has a small bar area that featured some pretty impressive Scotch whisky as well as a number of signature drinks made up by the bartenders. The red walls in the front of the restaurant are bordered by a wood floor and an off-white ceiling. At night, the lights are reduced and it's difficult to read the menu, even if you have good eyesight. Fortunately, we were at a table with a dim light nearly overhead, so it made it easier than tables on either side of us.
The menu at Cumin features a number of Nepalese and Indian appetizers, as well as a handful of Nepalese entrees that I couldn't even come close to pronouncing, and a wide variety of Indian entrees including a massive amount of vegetarian dishes. Cumin is one of the more popular restaurants in Chicago with vegetarians, but they also feature entrees with chicken, lamb and seafood.
Since Adam and Chris had eaten there many times before, I deferred to them as to what they thought was the best. Adam suggested that we order some appetizers and then three entrees and eat "family style", trying a little bit of everything. I thought that was a great idea. I told Adam to order up some appetizers and he ordered some chicken momo - which, I was told, is sort of the national dish of Nepal. He also ordered some lamb keema and vegetable samosas - a samosa is crisp pastry cone filled with either veggies or a meat. It was something that I had never had before and I'm always looking to broadening my horizons when it comes to Indian and/or Nepalese food.
The chicken momo came out first. It was seasoned ground chicken wrapped up in a little dough fold-up, baked and served with a Himalayan cashew sauce on the side (below left). We got eight on the platter and I have to say they were very good. I tried one without the cashew sauce and it was very good. The spices that they use with the ground chicken really had a nice taste on the tongue. It was far from spicy hot, but had great flavor.
The samosas (above right) were brought out not long after the chicken momo came out. They were little pastry puffs that were, I believe, deep fried. Two of each were on their own platter and the vegetarian samosa had potatoes and peas in a mild spice blend, and the lamb keem samosa had seasoned ground lamb inside. We cut them all in half and each had at least one of both kinds. Although I'm not big on lamb, I liked the lamb samosa better than the vegetarian one.
We decided on getting three entrees to share. Adam picked the shrimp curry; Chris - the chicken tikka masala; and I got the chicken vindaalu. One thing that I noticed about Cumin was that this was the fourth way I've seen the word "vindaalu" spelled in an Indian restaurant. I've seen "vindaloo", "vendaloo", "vindalu" and now "vindaalu". I have no idea as to what is the right spelling for the term.
And another thing that I noticed at Cumin - contrary to some of the Indian restaurants I've been to over the past couple of years, the service was actually outstanding. When I was finished with my second Kingfisher beer of the evening, one of the managers came over to the table and asked if I would like another beer. I told him, "Sure!" Then he asked if I would like to try a Chakra beer. I had seen it on the menu but wasn't familiar with it, so that's why I ordered a Kingfisher. He said, "Very similar to Kingfisher, only more taste." I told him that I'd try one. Hey, broadening my horizons! And it was pretty good. Actually, it was more flavorful than the Kingfisher, which is a pretty good beer to go along with spicy Indian food.
The food came out and we were ready to dig in. A large bowl of basmati rice came with the entrees and we had also ordered regular and garlic naan bread with the meal. We each took a bit of rice and then a smattering of the three entrees. The shrimp was interesting as it was cooked in a way that it was first butterflied then cooked so that it curled up, sort of like broiled lobster. It was very, very good with the curry sauce. And the curry sauce was very mild and very forward in taste, but not spicy at all
The chicken tikka masala was also very good. They first cook the chicken in a tandoor oven, then simmer the chicken in a tomato cream sauce. The spices they use in the sauce really brings out the taste in the tandoor-cooked chicken. I had one bad experience with tandoori chicken where it was overcooked (and it's easy to do) . But Cindy has had tandoor chicken in the past and this tandoor chicken masala was very good. I may have to give it another shot.
But I really REALLY liked the chicken vindaalu. The chicken was tender, the potatoes were flavorful and the overall taste of the sauce was sort of tangy, but not at all hot. On the menu, it said the sauce was a mix of tangy and hot, but I didn't get that spicy "hot" taste at all. I know I'm more used to spicy foods, but I didn't think the spiciness of the vindaalu sauce was all that hot. Overall, it was some of the best chicken vindaalu, or vindaloo, or vendaloo that I've had.
I can see why Michelin gave a Bib Gourmand nod to Cumin. The food was excellent and I got to broaden my culinary and beer horizons once again. The wait staff was on top of things - we had at least three different guys who checked on us before, during and after the meal. Even with the imported Indian beers and the appetizers, the bill was less than $100 bucks for all three of us. I had been looking forward to go to Cumin at some point and I'm glad I got the opportunity to go with the guys from Decibel Audio. I told the guys during dinner, "My wife loves Indian food. It's something that we've both gotten into over the past couple of years. And I've got to bring her here sometime." Oh, yeah. I'll be back to Cumin.