More spice needed at Om

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2010 - 2:11 PM

Exotic flavors offer global travel on a fork. Humdrum surroundings shout "Minnesota basement."

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A dramatic, open staircase is not enough to counter the drab basement-level dining area at Om, but Raghavan Iyer’s menu is a colorful survey of Indian cuisine.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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The salmon was fantastic. The fillet's texture was buttery, and each bite released a parade of flavors that, on paper might sound discordant but in reality blended harmoniously, from the pang of vinegar to the gentle heat of cinnamon.

The pork was similarly spectacular: fork-tender slices of succulent, ginger-marinated meat braised in a mellow coconut milk-laced vindaloo. It was subtle and elegant and utterly marvelous.

At Om Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, consulting chef Raghavan Iyer says his menu isn't fusion, but it can occasionally taste that way. That salmon, for example, isn't native to India, but its seasonings evoke traditions of the region's Konkan Coast. But who cares about semantics? The menu is Iyer's edible travelogue through his native country, a contemporized greatest hits of the culinary polyglot that is modern India.

The pork's seasonings are intended to represent a crossover between the Hindus and Christians of Goa, the lamb is a nod to the nation's Islamic home kitchens, the lentil cakes are an homage to practices in India's southeastern region. All are filtered through Iyer's contemporary sensibilities. "I want to elevate the status of Indian cooking from the buffet line," he told me. "If they decide to open the restaurant for lunch and ask me to do a lunch buffet, I am out of here."

Same here. Anyone who has read Iyer's fascinating cookbooks -- "660 Curries," "The Turmeric Trail," heck, even the more mainstream "Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking" -- knows that he's a master with spices. At Om (a dreadful name, by the way, and yes, the staff answers the phone by saying "Namaste," ugh) those freshly ground blends of cardamom, cumin, saffron and coriander are transforming familiar proteins -- shrimp, beef tenderloin -- into eloquent postcards from the land of "Slumdog Millionare."

The cooking, directed on a day-to-day basis by chef de cuisine Jaime Sierra, aims to elevate Minnesotans' view of Indian cooking, and in this charge it often succeeds, turning out food that is lighter, brighter and more elegant than previously experienced in these parts. It's been a long time coming, and particularly welcome during these bleak wintry months.

Small bites, big flavor

The menu is big -- perhaps too big -- but here's a tip: In the way that a supermarket's most browse-worthy aisles are on its perimeter, the dishes tucked along the menu's edges are often the most enticing. They're also symbols of the simple-is-often-best philosophy. A sinus-clearing soup (seriously, do the Vicks VapoRub people know about this?) of stewed red bell peppers, chiles and green cardamom throbs with bold flavor and vibrant color. Okra, braised in tomatoes, is the best I've ever tasted. A magical salad of scorching red chile-roasted shrimp is cooled -- just slightly -- by a ginger/golden raisin vinaigrette.

I love the fragrant breads, served in paper cups with a side of blisteringly hot pickled mangoes. Golden flatbreads, brushed with clarified butter and twinkling with sea salt, have just the right fluffy pull, and arrive tasting as if they were just yanked, seconds earlier, from the intense heat of their clay oven.

Iyer is a self-described "potato freak," which explains why the green chile-potato naan is the one to order. The griddled breads are equally impressive, especially the cakes with five varieties of lentils -- such little nutritional powerhouses that still manage to taste great -- and the tender, spinach-flecked crêpes made with chickpea flour.

My wish for the restaurant is that Iyer would take his audience down a few less-traveled paths. It's an ambitious operation, so was it wrong of me to hope for more daring tastes? I'd love to see a greater variety of fish and seafood beyond scallops, shrimp, salmon and walleye. The vegetarian and poultry dishes are crying out for more pizazz, and most entrees are served with plus-sized side dishes that feel like resigned nods to Minnesota tastes.

A number of the starters, including crisp phyllo cups filled with a pleasing combination of potatoes and mint, terrific crackers topped with sweet and tart chutneys, could have been plucked off a cater waiter's party tray (no surprise, as Iyer is a noted caterer). With the exception of berries blended with cardamom-scented yogurt, the desserts are fine but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. Consistency is an issue as well; dishes that sang one night fell a little flat the next.

Under the sidewalk

The restaurant's design is definitely its Debbie Downer moment. I'll bright-side it and say hurrah to principals Vik Uppal and Randy Norman for pumping new life into a landmark Warehouse District address, the former home of Nate's Clothing. Still, the transformation is a flubbed opportunity. Below-grade dining rooms tanked at Porter & Frye and Chambers Kitchen, and the format doesn't work at Om, either, despite a few well-meaning efforts to the contrary, including a dramatic, wide-open staircase and peekaboo cuts in the ceiling that inject sound and light from the floor above. Remove those bells and whistles and what's left is a vast, gloomy, generically decorated basement.

Anyone who has been within earshot of Iyer's infectious giggle will probably wonder why the outsized and impersonal surroundings don't reflect his effusively warm nature. What a strange -- and, one would assume, intentional -- disconnect, between Iyer's visually vibrant food and the surroundings' soul-sucking shades of brown (Come on, brown? Fashion czarina Diana Vreeland didn't once famously quip "Pink is the navy blue of India" for nothing.)

The main-floor lounge injects a more appealing jewel-tone color palette -- an energy-inducing stretch of windows helps, a lot -- but it unfortunately shares the dining room's low-budget aura.

Little about Om's surroundings telegraph "upscale" or "contemporary" (or, frankly, "comfortable"). Iyer's ideas -- and Sierra's hard work -- deserve better.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • OM RESTAURANT ★★1/2

    Location: 401 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-1510, www.omminneapolis.com.

    Hours: 4:30 to 11 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

    Atmosphere: A cavernous basement-level dining room lies beneath a livelier but awkwardly configured street-level lounge.

    Service: Attentive, unfailingly polite and occasionally, oddly formal; do Minnesotans routinely incorporate words such as "Madame" and "thus" and "shall" into their vocabularies?

    Sound level: Not an issue (see cavernous, above).

    Recommended dishes: Mint-potato tartlets, salmon, pork, filet mignon, shrimp salad, okra, breads.

    Wine list: Covers the bases, at medium prices. Full bar, with a provocative cocktail list.

    Average prices: Starters $8, breads $5, sides $7, entrees $23, desserts $7.

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