South Asian flavors through a Midwest filter
By Tim Carman
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
It’s hard not to stand in amazement at the transformation of H Street NE. What was once a boulevard of broken dreams -- a riot-scarred stretch of buildings whose denizens were often content to live on fried-fish sandwiches and tall boys -- is now a United Nations of foreign cuisines.
You can walk down the revitalized street and sample foods whose origins trace back to Japan, France, Ethiopia, Belgium, Britain, Jamaica, Morocco, Ireland, Germany and even China, if you count those carryouts that cling to life in the gentrifying neighborhood. But until Cusbah South Asian Spice Bar opened in early August, H Street was apparently bereft of Indian food.
“I think I’m the only Indian place, which is to our advantage at this point in time. But we can’t rely on that,” says co-owner Tariq Hussain, who is also the proprietor of the Capitol Hill Tandoor and Grill.
Hussain has smartly hedged his bets with Cusbah, which, like so many restaurants along the corridor, understands the primacy of alcohol. Hussain’s bar revels in its multiple personalities: It offers signature cocktails (remember the simple syrup in the tart Silk Road next time, please) as well as South Asian takes on classics such as the Sidecar and Cosmopolitan. But it also allows you to belly up to the counter both inside the small, stylish dining room and outside on the boisterous patio. Cusbah’s bar really wants you to like it.
The place even has its own variation on wings and beer: a $5 special of PBR paired with a flaky and fragrantly spiced vegetable samosa. You won’t miss the Buffalo sauce. The pairing underscores Hussain’s vision to freely intermingle the cooking of India and Pakistan, where the body is a temple, with the vices of the West, where the body is just a piece of equipment to be abused in this extreme sport called life. The Western side of Cusbah is more polished at this point.
But then again, when I visited Cusbah in mid-August, the kitchen was still pacing itself, serving a compact version of what will (perhaps this week) be a full menu of Punjabi-influenced dishes. Still, money spent is money spent, and the “authentic” spicing of my small plate of palak paneer was more Midwestern than subcontinental (though tasty in its mildness), while the chicken tikka appetizer was as dry as dog kibble. The lamb vindaloo, however, was as fiery as advertised.
Are there better things to come for those who wait for Cusbah to mature? Hussain says so. “We want to take baby steps” at first, he says.