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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Quay Tao, owner of The Portage, is either the nicest restaurateur in Chicago or the biggest phony. One of the motors behind the recently closed Tizi Melloul, Tao has been busy charming diners since the nineties, when he was manager at Le Colonial, and I’m always suspicious of charming restaurateurs. Then I saw him in action. Rotating from The Portage’s granite-topped bar to the communal wood banquette on the lovely backyard deck, Tao genuinely tries to shake every customer’s hand and learn every customer’s name. He was so insistent that I grab a paperback from the restaurant’s take-one, leave-one library that I left with some Erik Larson historical adventure I’m never going to read. (It’s an ingenious business ploy: I feel obliged to return to The Portage so I can get the damn book off my bedside table.)
Once a Polish stronghold, Portage Park has always been a hidden gem of a neighborhood. Tao, who lives nearby with his wife and two toddlers, charges his mellow new gastropub with the same smooth but sincere vibe that makes Lula Cafe the epicenter of Logan Square. Actually, Tao is after more than neighborhood dominance. “Our goal is to be the dining destination for the Northwest Side,” he says. “Anything north of Logan Square and east of Lincoln Square, we want people to say, ‘OK, let’s go to The Portage.’” Maybe he’s onto something: None of the customers I talked to were from Portage Park. Wherever they come from, though, patrons seem thrilled with their Kobe burgers and boneless fried chicken. Other than the duck fat fries—wonderful skin-on strands with multiple engaging dipping sauces—I’m not sure what makes the place a gastropub. Then again, on my visits the restaurant was still awaiting the city’s green light on the pub part of the equation.
So let’s focus on the gastro. The chef, Jeff Brantley, came over with Tao from Tizi Melloul and has nailed the American-comfort-food thing because he doesn’t try too hard to impress. Mac and cheese, a dish that has gone from silly kid stuff to a two-star plaything and back, here is a straight-up three-cheese pleasure topped with crisp bread crumbs. And where chefs are tripping all over themselves to out-short-rib one another, Brantley simply braises his in beer until the fat has melted into the beef so completely you barely notice the beer reduction on top. He covers his tender pork chop in creamed spinach and lays it in a deep-flavored white wine and Dijon sauce with clouds of wonderful mashed sweet potatoes. This is comfort food I can get behind. And when his kitchen team gets gimmicky with stuff like buttered-popcorn ice cream, which they achieve by steeping buttered popcorn in cream and straining it, they make damn sure it’s amazing.
Like Cumin, The Portage is part of the new breed of kinder, gentler restaurant that blossoms in a downturn economy, where the experience is weighted more toward warmth than polish. It’s exactly the kind of smart, cute neighborhood place that people invariably say they wish was on their street. I don’t care where it is: I’m going back.
1414 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-1414
FYI Vegetarians: Get the Bollywood platter. Carnivores: Create a diversion and sneak some nibbles of it.
TAB $20 to $25 (without alcohol, tax, or tip)
HOURS Lunch Tuesday through Sunday; dinner daily
3938 N. Central Ave.; 773-853-0779
FYI The laid-back Brazilian-wood patio immediately vaults to a place among Chicago’s best. That goes double for the crab cake.
TAB $25 to $30 (without alcohol, tax, or tip)
HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Sunday
Photography: Anna Knott