Om Restaurant serves up nirvana on a platter, Indian-style

Not just a chef, a "culinary engineer": Raghavan Iyer with wild salmon

Not just a chef, a "culinary engineer": Raghavan Iyer with wild salmon

After the young, up-and-coming real-estate developer Vik Uppal bought the old Nate's Clothing Building at First Avenue and Fourth Street in downtown Minneapolis, out went the sports coats and dress slacks. In came a gorgeous, two-story chandelier dangling over a reflecting pool, and lounge-y seating covered in fabrics as festive as wedding saris. Out went the artist Scott Seekins, with his stash of self-portraits and his wardrobe of white and black suits. In came a crowd of curious diners, more mature than the rest of the downtown dance-club scene, perhaps, but still young enough to wear high-heeled boots and sip colorful martinis before noshing on plates of paneer and tandoori chicken.

Uppal's new restaurant, Om, takes the newly burgeoning upscale ethnic concept (see Masa, Saffron, Jasmine 26, et al.) into new territory, injecting it with a slightly nightclubby vibe. The place feels a little like the late Bellanotte—though without its conspicuous contingent of NBA players and hangers-on—and a natural fit for its general manager, Randy Norman, a former Bellanotte partner and namesake of the original R. Norman's steakhouse and Seven sushi lounge.

The swank space does have a few quirks. While tables against the walls of the subterranean dining room feel cozy, those in the middle of the room feel a little exposed. But overall I found Om's luxury something of a relief: At last, somebody in town had the confidence to splurge.

In looking for someone to design Om's menu and oversee the kitchen, Uppal approached local cookbook author and culinary educator Raghavan Iyer, a Bombay native who has established a national reputation in Indian cookery. Iyer's role is described as that of a "culineer," or "culinary engineer." (The term might at first seem a little odd, but it's admittedly less cumbersome than "consulting executive chef.") After experiences that include training the Bon Appetit restaurant management company's chefs in Indian cookery and helping develop ready-to-eat Indian meals for Target's Archer Farms brand, Iyer made his first foray into restaurant menus. After designing all of Om's dishes, Iyer trained chef de cuisine Jaime Sierra, formerly of Bellanotte, to oversee the kitchen's day-to-day operations.

Compared to the familiar Punjabi/Mughlai cooking found in the majority of Twin Cities' Indian restaurants (Dancing Ganesha and Nala Pak being among the few exceptions), Om explores a broader range of flavor profiles. When describing the menu, Iyer says his goal was to showcase the many classic regional flavors of India in a "more contemporary package." He shies away from the term "fusion," which suggests a mash-up of distinct elements of different cultures. Don't expect to find adobo tandoori or curry spaghetti at Om. Instead, the entrée template features protein-focused, Continental-style dishes flavored with Indian spice blends.

For example, the tandoori Cornish game hen. The bird is marinated in a mixture of vinegar, garlic, chiles, and cashews, then grilled in the tandoor so the meat comes out tender, fragrant, and sweet. To add an extra layer of flavor, the hen is bathed in a sauce of coconut milk, tomatoes, and toasted cumin to create a rich, warm, comforting dish. Iyer also created of a rack of lamb rubbed with the common Indian seasonings of ginger, garlic, cardamom, and cumin, then braised in a mild fennel-tomato sauce. The meat was good alone or paired with a bite of paneer-mint naan, and even better when eaten with its accompanying grilled eggplant pâté.

The best example of the menu's approach is likely the Om filet mignon. The mild, tender meat is rubbed with chiles and tandoor-grilled, then served with a bold mushroom sauce and sides of mashed sweet potatoes and baby carrots. It's a dish unheard of in traditional Indian restaurants, and one I found as intriguing as it was delicious. Dishes like these could be considered entry-level ethnic fare for those who find curry out of their culinary comfort zone. Interestingly, during my visits to Om, I noticed fewer diners of Indian descent than at most local Indian eateries.

Om's seafood is sustainably sourced, a consideration that's often overlooked at more price-sensitive ethnic eateries. I'd skip the walleye with cumin, whose delicate flavor was overpowered by grill-mark char, and otherwise wasn't nearly as interesting as the wild salmon. The pert, pink filet was flavored with turmeric and poached in a brassy sauce made from coconut milk, malt vinegar, red chiles, cinnamon, garlic, and scallions. Its funky tang suggests the Goan flavors of Southwest India. I felt like I'd just touched down on the tarmac of a country I'd never seen, so different was its flavor from most local Indian fare.

It's possible to order more familiar dishes, too: spicy okra cooked with tomato, coconut shrimp, or grilled paneer that takes on the flavors of saffron, and a sweet-sour red chile raisin sauce. There are only a few meatless dishes at Om, the most notable of which is the vegetable curry casserole: biryani and vegetable curry tucked into a puff-pastry-topped crock, a recipe from Iyer's most recent 660 Curries cookbook. The casserole was good, but the starch-on-starch seemed somewhat redundant.

Desserts were creative, but didn't quite satisfy my palate. The Nirvana Cake is a chile-spiced version of the standard molten chocolate, but it wasn't as moist and lush as I'd hoped. The mango cheesecake seemed an interesting pairing—some of the world's best mangos are grown in India, though cheesecake is practically nonexistent—but the tropical fruit was overwhelmed by the cake's strong cardamom flavor and the high crust-to-filling ratio.

Instead, I'd suggest the coconut crème brûlée or a drink called the Himalaya that tastes rather like it. Om has a strong drinks program, actually. Two cocktails I'd definitely order again: the Agni, made with vodka, lime, and Thai chiles; and the Karma, made with whiskey, cardamom, and cream that tasted like a spicy, butterscotch candy with a pleasant, chest-warming effect. Service was polished and helpful, though perhaps a little paternal when I tried to order a rose lassi and had my request flatly denied:

"What do you mean, 'No'?" I asked our waiter.

"Don't order that," he advised. "It tastes like the smell of your grandma's bathroom."

"I've had rose petal syrup before. I'd still like to try it. I'm willing to take the risk."

A few minutes later, our waiter returned with my friends' after-dinner drinks and, for me, a sample of the chai. (Unintentionally or not, he never brought the lassi.) Still, the chai was delicious: heavy on the cardamom, with a soothing, malty finish and a strong caffeine kick. Had the lights been dimmed and a Bollywood soundtrack projected, who knows how the night might have finished?