Many Hyde Park residents already familiar with Cumin, the community's six-year-old, "eclectic" fusion restaurant on Erie Avenue, have eagerly awaited Chef Owen Maass and owner Alex Mchaikhi's latest venture, the neighboring M Wood Fired Oven. A little more than two months old, M uses its freshly-imported European oven as a centerpiece for its casual dining concept, with nearly everything but the desserts spending some bit of time basking in blissfully blistering heat.
M is the disheveled, rough-around-the-edges younger brother to the more elegant and upscale Cumin; there are no white table linens here. Yet it evokes just enough refinement to satisfy the local high-brows while still catering to the rest of us.
Mingling of the classes (or at least interpretations of basic fashion sense) was particularly evident on the night of our first visit. My girlfriend and I had erred on the side of caution by dressing "business casual," but generally, it was a free-for-all: while most patrons dressed in kind, extremes ranged from those in sweatpants (really?) to others in sports coats and dresses.
M's ambiance is rustic, dark and subdued. Walls are covered with broad, distressed planks of wood fitted with pegs and antique-style lanterns of varying size and shape are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Aside from some modern touches (viva la LCD screens), the interior design gives M diners a sense of eating in a cozy medieval inn along the south of France, back to a time when citizens would visit the town's communal oven and pay the oven master or "fournier" to cook their meal.
Menu items are divided into five courses: "small plates" of meat, cheese and veggies; "flora" with a choice of three salads; four bubbly, browned "gratins"; a selection of six wood fired pizzas; and a "primal," premiere, rotating showcase of quality proteins.
"Locally Sourced, Sustainably Driven" is M's tag line, with ingredients sourced primarily from farmers and butchers in the Tristate area, including Xenia, Ohio and Indianapolis.
My girlfriend and I selected items from all but the "flora" course, starting with a sweet potato brandade ($6), small, hand-formed nuggets of salt cod and sweet potato served with a smear of olive relish and black garlic aioli. Accompanying the brandade was a mushroom gratin ($8) with goat cheese, honey and thyme.
Mixing salt cod with sweet potato seemed an unlikely pairing in the brandade, but it yielded a clever flavor profile, coupled with a pleasing textural sensation of crispy outer coating giving way to a soft inner core. However, the olive relish, in combination with the salt cod, ultimately left the dish a bit salty, so use it sparingly.
My girlfriend thought the roasted mushroom gratin with its salty goat cheese also suffered from heavy-handed seasoning, but I found its intensity worked well with my $5 bottle of Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat beer, a fruity, crisp brew that's among M's 30 bottled beer options.
Molten "parmesan custard" highlighted our #3 Pizza ($12), which bubbled underneath toppings of pickled chilis, pistachios, red onions and flecks of rosemary. The wood-fired pizza was our most anticipated dish, as a perfectly cooked one is both crisp and slightly chewy, with beautifully charred edges. This one slightly missed the mark; while packed with unique, sharp flavors, its doughy vehicle was largely underdone.
Making its way past fellow diners to our table was my impressive "primal" plate: a giant roasted pork shank resting high on a bed of cheesy mushroom risotto ($18). Size matters when it comes to M's "primal" dishes, which on this night included baseball-sized meatballs, whole fish, half chickens and the aforementioned pork shanks, all casting shadows on the jealous, ogling patrons. The tender shank meat needed but a slight nudge to fall off the bone, a delicious highlight that left my lips sticky from smoky, rendered fat.
M's desserts are as outrageous and creative as Chef Maass, whose geeky, moussed, cartoon character-like persona and Cheshire grin lend him a playful unpretentiousness that fits well with M. While we skirted past his Nerd Cake, a slice of technicolor-frosted Walt Disney on a plate, our warm, cinnamon and brown sugar-infused pear pie with a dollop of spicy jalapeno gelato ($5) and red velvet cake with cream cheese icing and cocoa crispies ($6), were equally imaginative.
M Wood Fired Oven
Go: 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; Dinner: 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday