It was Friday mid afternoon and we were allowed to leave work early. It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and many companies downtown were rather anxious to start the weekend. Everyone wanted to leave work in a rush to avoid being stuck in traffic or crammed on public transportation en route to home — or wherever they were going. As for me, I opted for a casual subway ride from downtown to Wicker Park with intentions of going to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant. It was late enough that the lunch crowd would have thinned and the after-five crowd would have considered an early dinner an affront to their evening drinking agenda. I arrived at the door and saw that it was dark. Ras! The hours off business are 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, Wicker Park is only the neighbourhood south of Logan Square, where I live. So I went home and dropped off my attaché case, sat for a spell, and then headed back out for the 5:00 PM opening.
Found on the stretch of hip Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park at 1414 N. Milwaukee Avenue is Cumin, one of Chicago’s few Nepalese restaurants that is not tucked in between a host of Indian restaurants on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Restaurant atmosphere with a lounge kind of feel to it, I arrived at the restaurant while there were only two tables of diners. I had my pick of seats. Having received a recommendation from a colleague about how outstanding the food was at Cumin, I had slightly high hopes, but I moderated them just a bit. I have found that Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese restaurants that are not on Devon Avenue tend to appease the American palate more — that is, the food is rather absent of spices, especially the spices that burn the tongue.
During review of the menu, I noticed that the Nepalese bill of fare was considerably smaller than the Indian menu. The vegetarian options were also limited, surprisingly. Indian restaurants are quite dominant in the city, so I decided that I would focus on the Nepalese menu, specifically, perhaps with one exception. I saw a few vegetarian items on the menu. However, I deferred to the waitress for recommendations. I told her that I was primarily vegetarian and wanted something that was authentically Nepalese. Staying away from the usual menu items like samosas, pakoras, and curries, I simply handed the menu to her and told her that I wanted two appetizers and two entrées. With the vegetarian fare being lighter, I entertained one Nepalese appetizer and one Indian vegetarian appetizer. The entrées were Nepalese proper. Seeing that I was pulling my cameras from my bag, the waitress asked me if I wanted my food all at once or if I wanted it linearly so that I could photograph each dish without having the shuffle plates around on the table. I agreed to have each plate come individually.
The Nepalese appetizer to come to the table was the aaluka achar. Visually, this is every food photographers’ dream, stunning in presentation and well placed for your viewing pleasure. Taste-wise, these baby potatoes and cucumbers, diced and picked with sesame-lemon paste, tempered with fenugreek seed, red chillies, and tumeric powder were heaven served with the restaurant’s signature crispy flattened rice. This dish was so fantastic to the palate that I just knew the rest of the food I had ordered was going to be highly disappointing. And then the Indian appetizer of aalo tikki chaat came to the table. Not only was this appealing to the visual senses, but my taste buds had a party with every bite. This was a mashed potato cake under a cornucopia of boiled chickpeas, chopped onions, yogurt, chaat masala, and tamarind-mint chutney. My mouth went Wow with each taste and understandably so. What made this appetizer even more delectable was the fact that the tartness of the yogurt was balanced out nicely by the sweetness of the tamarind-mint chutney. The aaluka achar and aalo tikka chaat were so expressive in my mouth that I was then certain the appetizers were the best on the menu and the entrees were going to be the complete antithesis.
And when the first entrée came to the table, it was quite evident that I am neither a gambling man nor one who operates on first impressions setting the expectations bar. The baalungoku saag that I had is a traditional Nepalese dish that I can understand why it is favoured so well. In the bowl were fresh spinach leaves sautéed in cumin seed, mustard seed, fenugreek seed, dry red chillies, and fresh garlic cloves. Pa-pow-pow went the insides of my cheeks with each forkful that I placed on my tongue. The spinach had been cooked such that it was not bitter and spiced just right with the red chillies that there was a kick without a need for several swallows of water thereafter. The second entrée was parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Yet again, this was an amazing dish of potatoes, bamboo shoots, and black eyed peas cooked in delectable Nepalese spices. Recommended per the waitress as a traditional vegetarian dish in Nepal, I can say with brutal honesty that I do not want black eyed peas in another fashion than as a dish of parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Not to omit any items, but the basmati rice and roti that came with the entrées rounded out my meal very nicely. The nods of appreciation, the smiles of rapture, and the silence of my growling belly were all evidence that Cumin had done a fantastic job.
I knew that I would be able to finish the appetizers without incident. As to the entrées, I ate enough so that I could engage the waitress about the dishes, their preparations, and their cultural significances in Nepal. While getting the remaining entrées prepared for take-away, I had a chai. Naturally sweet and certainly not prepared like that sugary madness you get at Starbucks and other coffee houses, this chai reminded me of that which I partook of in Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, just not as peppery. I was quite satisfied and was thrown for a bit of a quandary when I saw the bill. I was quite certain that the waitress had left something off — something that happens often at restaurants where I go. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the appetizers, entrées, and chai that I had ordered were present and accounted for. It was just that the prices were not so above the clouds that the cash register sounded off in stereo with “cha-ching” when the waitress cashed me out.
For a first visit, I found Cumin to be a restaurant that I would recommend highly. From the inviting welcome, to the delicious factor of the food, to the price, Cumin is a package that is hard to shirk. As mentioned earlier, the Nepalese menu is small in comparison the Indian menu, and I will have to return in the future to sample what the Indian portion has to offer. With Cumin also being a few stops away from where I live or a bus ride away, I will not have to venture north of where I live to Devon Avenue for some Nepalese food fascination. In the meantime, I will polish off the remaining baalungoku saag and parvate aalu tama ra bodi while reminiscing of how great my experience was on this particular early Friday evening.