Reviews: Cumin and The Portage

KINDER, GENTLER: Two popular new spots draw crowds the traditional way: with good old-fashioned warmth

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Left: The Portage’s back-patio communal table; right: roasted adobo salmon on summer succotash with frisée and asparagus
 

When all is said and done, a dining review need only answer one question: Should I spend my money there? Whether yea or nay, the verdict usually comes at the end so you’ll read the writer’s insightful defense of his opinion, which he’s allowed to state after proving it’s OK to trust a stranger in such personal matters. So let’s get it out of the way: Go spend your money at Cumin and The Portage. And trust me because, for some silly reasons, I was predisposed to dislike both restaurants. After trying them, I admit I was wrong. Twice.

Wait. Don’t turn the page yet. I’m just getting to my insightful defense. Let’s start with Cumin, which, based on nothing beyond its Wicker Park address and promise of a “modern” vibe, I assumed would be a hipper-than-you take on Indian cuisine—and, hey, we also serve Nepalese food. Look how innovative we are! I envisioned a smooth operator with precious cocktails that mixed hibiscus and coriander and a dilettante chef who couldn’t find Nepal on a map before 2009. Wrong, wrong, and more wrong. Cumin, a 70-seater with red walls, bamboo floors, and a distinctive aroma that pours out onto Milwaukee Avenue, is none of the above.

“People get confused when you say ‘modern’ because they think it’s going to be fusion food,” says Sanjeev Karmacharya, a partner along with his brother Rajesh. “But only the presentation and the dining area are modern. The food is meant to be authentic.” For once, “authentic” actually means something: The brothers are Nepalese, as is their chef, Min Thapa. None are especially hip. Sanjeev is a software engineer, and Thapa just finished a stint at a restaurant in Champaign. One manager, Dipesh Kakshapati, most recently ran a Popeyes. This is perhaps the least dynamic team ever to take Wicker Park by storm.

What Cumin’s Indian choices lack in surprise they make up in breadth: 12 breads, six pakoras, six biryanis, and page after page of straight-up northern and southern Indian classics. Pick a dish at random—say, the samosa chat—and you’ve got a wonderful deconstructed vegetable pastry with sweet, addictive tamarind and mint chutneys. Or the sambhar, a complex lentil vegetable broth sporting an array of imposing spices from mustard seed to asafetida (a.k.a. “devil’s dung”). Ordering here can feel like a shot in the dark, so repeat after me: onion bhaji pakora, shrimp biryani, lamb madras, gulab jamun. Throw in an order of garlic naan, and you’ve got a good cross section that hits all your basic Indian food groups: basmati rice, fried stuff, tandoori, curry, and Meat That Isn’t Cow.

The menu’s 15 or so Nepalese options sound alien but differ so slightly from Indian that even the natives have a hard time explaining the difference. “Nepalese dishes don’t use dairy products, and Indian has creams and stuff,” says Sanjeev. “But pretty much the spices are the same.” It’s not a major leap to pleasant snacks such as aaluko achar, pickled baby potatoes with sesame-lemon paste and a crunchy flattened rice called chewra, or hearty entrées like gorkhali khasi, a tender bone-in goat stew. Even more accessible are the momo, chicken-packed dumplings that have been around almost as long as the Himalayas, paired with a contemporary cashew, tomato, and sesame sauce. A lot of the fare begins to run together after a while, but the dishes—and soft-spoken servers—are exotic enough to please the image-conscious crowd and approachable enough to please those uninterested in appearances.

No wonder Cumin has been packed nearly every night since it opened in May. The fun vibe streams out the door along with the unique scent—which, I ought to mention, repels as many customers as it lures. “I can smell it from a block away, and it’s disgusting,” says one neighbor. “Not because it’s such an awful smell, but because they are overpowering the frickin’ neighborhood.” In more ways than one.

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