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Stand by Your Mantra
Chef Yajan Upadhyaya reintroduces us to modern Indian cuisine.
I’m naturally suspicious when a server throws around too many superlatives, and a little cheesed-off when his or her eye on the check total is obvious, especially within the first few minutes of interaction. There’s upselling, and then there’s this: No thank you, I don’t care for a cocktail. Really? The most delish martinis ever? OK, so tell me about the cucumber celery martini. You haven’t? Huh. Because it sounded like you have had one or two or all of them. Let’s just start with some water. Yes, I am sure. What do you mean, chemical-free water? Sure, I know what Pellegrino and Acqua Panna are; I’ve just never heard them offered that way. I’ll have a glass of Cincinnati water, no ice. Yes, I have the wine list. Not right this minute thanks, I’ll check it out and think about a glass with dinner. Yes, I am sure. True, sometimes a bottle can be more economical. Unless I’m planning to drink one glass, then it’s not. Yes, we need a minute to study the menu. Really? The best Indian food west of India?
Aggressive salesmanship, clearly. An odd duck, apparently. But it turns out he wasn’t completely off-base. I can’t speak to the larger borders he invoked, but I can say Mantra on the Hill serves some of the most interesting Indian food in the city. Even the cucumber celery martini I eventually gave in to on a subsequent visit (Belvedere vodka, St. Germain, pepper, lemon, cucumber, and macerated celery) was manlier than it sounded. But most delish ever? That’s a tough bar for anyone to meet.
Mantra is an old Sanskrit word that refers to a tool or instrument of the mind. Generally, a mantra is considered a repetitive word or sound that, coupled with intent, becomes a tool for creating positive transformation.
Yajan Upadhyaya knows a thing or two about transformation. Long before the Mumbai native (he moved to the Boston area with his parents and sister in 1975) was a restaurant owner—or a chef, or a line cook, or a culinary student—he was a student of architecture at Northeastern University. One of his projects was an Indian restaurant, which led to a job as a server and then as a cook. Instead of following his father into architecture, he took inspiration from his mother’s cooking, and in 1990 enrolled in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Like most culinary programs with a core curriculum in classic French cooking, Upadhyaya’s classes covered fundamentals, principles, and techniques—but he kept his eye on the classic Indian dishes he had grown up with. Though he dropped out and never completed the program, he soon joined with friends to build Chola Group, a company specializing in Indian fine dining. Four restaurants followed: two in tony Connecticut communities, one in Massachusetts, and one in Manhattan. The restaurant Cincinnatians best know him for, Cumin Modern Indian Café, was unlike any of them.
Fans of the original incarnation of Cumin—all 1,100 square feet (both dining room and kitchen) and 36 chairs—will recognize much of Mantra’s menu. When Upadhyaya opened the café in 2002, it caused quite a stir in a dining community whose exposure to Indian cuisine largely meant the greatest hits of Punjabi stews and street food. With his talented sous chef Sabino Pehneiro (from Goa, India, by way of Columbus, Ohio), Upadhyaya introduced local diners to such dishes as imli baingan—a tangle of paper-thin eggplant chips coated in a sweet and sour tamarind date sauce, freckled with toasted sesame seeds and cilantro—and an updated version of papri chaat, a Northern Indian street food that blends a dice of potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, and sev (fried vermicelli made from chickpea flour), with seasoned yogurt, tamarind chutney, and cilantro. Upadhyaya omits the crisp wafers traditionally used to hold the other ingredients, and refashions the snack as a salad bejeweled with pomegranate seeds. Both of these dishes are as popular on Mantra’s menu as they were on Cumin’s, and our server-shark did not waste a moment using the scarcity principle to make the sale (“They always sell out early, so you should order them now”).
With a successful restaurant, transformation was Upadhyaya’s intent once again in 2006 when he partnered with Alex Mchaikhi to move Cumin several doors down, double its size, and honor its divergent cultures by dressing it in bold, contemporary finishes, a graceful tribal mural, and statues of Hindu deities. Again, Upadhyaya stocked his kitchen with talent, hiring Josh Munchel, a Daveed’s alum. Munchel and Upadhyaya infused the menu with more assertive flavors and global influence. Cumin soared for most, but lost loyal customers who were less interested in the world beat. Upadhyaya and Mchaikhi ended their partnership in 2009, and Upadhyaya moved home to Boston (Mchaikhi still owns Cumin).
Despite our server’s superlative attempt to sell the lamb shank (“Some New Yorkers were in here the other night and said it was the best braised lamb they’ve ever had”), a plate of Masala lamb chops has been delivered along with a copper pot of ghobi charchari, a Bengali stew of cauliflower and green peas blended with equal amounts of fennel, mustard, fenugreek, nigella, and cumin seeds. There’s Kalimirch tikka as well: pepper-spiced, yogurt-marinated chicken baked in the tandoor. It’s the subtle union of flavors and textures—some unexpected—that make Mantra’s dishes stand out: a little sweet heat, a hit of garlic confit in the ghobi, the twang of pickled beets against the richness of yogurt and chicken, herbs de provence and a ginger lime marinade on the perfectly roasted chops.
Plate after plate hits every note of acidity, spice, and fat. There are dishes that fall flat because of this too, but more often it’s the kitchen’s execution. The patrani machi—a daily catch (corvina during one visit) steamed in a banana leaf—disintegrated rather than flaked, and seemed oddly indifferent to its side of mango salsa and cilantro chutney. A dessert samosa, billed as “the flakiest apple pie, Indian style” by you-know-who was an anemic triangle of spiced apples wrapped in packaged phyllo dough. Apparently someone forgot to put it in the oven, devoid as it was of any color and pie-ness.
After a couple of years in Boston, Upadhyaya felt Cincinnati still had a place for him and his niche restaurant concept, and with the local market still expanding, he wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. As it happened, David and Liz Cook were moving their Hatch Street restaurant, Daveed’s at 934, out to the suburbs. Just 25 days after Upadhyaya took possession, he opened Mantra. What he calls his “inspired, naan traditional, gourmet” brand of Indian cooking seems to have found a home, the clean and simple flavors echoing the subdued interior.
Warm spice paint and Matisse prints enrich the interior walls; trees wrapped in lights and an outdoor kitchen, complete with tandoor oven, anchor the patio. Most evenings, live music from the neighboring Blind Lemon provides a soundtrack. That’s great when it’s jazzbabies Billy Larkin and Eugene Goss. The solo artist who sounds as if he’s writing junior prom classics? Sorry babe, not a fan.
Upadhyaya says his mantra is to leave you “smiling by the passion and diversity of India.” If our experience is any example, selling diners on that won’t be difficult. But it could mean early retirement for the best server ever.
Mantra on the Hill, 934 Hatch St., Mt. Adams, (513) 621-1100, mantraonthehill.com
Casual modern bistro featuring many regional cuisines of India.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue.