CINCINNATI - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Brij Mohan Indian Sweets & Restaurant
- Where: 11259 Reading Rd., Cincinnati
- Website: Brijmohansweets.com
- Connect: Facebook
- Food: Authentic northern Indian vegetarian cuisine and traditional Indian sweets
- Prices: Entrees $7.99 - $9.99; Appetizers (street food) $2.99 - $6.99; Sweets $6.99/lb - $8.49/lb
The moment you walk into Brij Mohan, the array of colorful sweets that line the display case beckon you. That's one clue this is no run-of-the-mill restaurant. It's not often that you find an Indian eatery that offers this many assortment of freshly made traditional sweets.
Brij Mohan serves up northern Indian vegetarian food, specializing in authentic street cuisine, which are grouped as "appetizers."
The appetizer lineup parallel the food you'd find on food carts on the streets of India. Poori bread, a type of deep-fried puffy bread, is freshly made here every day. This bread is the building block of two signature appetizers: Dahi poori (pictured below) and pani poori, also called gol gappe.
In pani poori, the puffy bread is filled with sauces and served with a spicy water. Dahi poori, the best selling appetizer, incorporates yogurt, potatoes and chutneys--like mint and tamarind--with poori bread.
Many diners know and love samosas, those tasty deep-fried pastry packets stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas. In addition to samosas, Brij Mohan offers samosa chaat, where the samosa is crushed (pictured below), and dressed with thick chickpea curry. That's not all; onion, tomato and green pepper go on top, followed by a flavor burst of tamarind, mint and jalapeno chutneys.
This appetizer boldly celebrates the contrast in flavor, color and texture.
Bhel poori is another crowd pleaser, with a clever mix of salty puffed rice, onion, tomato, green pepper, and tangy sweet tamarind chutney.
The house-made sweets are a big draw for the local and regional clientele. The owners proudly divulge they use fresh milk, rather than powdered, to prepare these traditional Indian sweets. The large assortment presents the diner with the "sweet" dilemma of choice.
Gulab jamun, an Indian sweet staple, are deep-fried "spongy" milk balls, soaked in rose-water scented syrup. Brij Mohan adds its own twist by stuffing the traditional gulab jamun with flavored milk fudge and pistachios.
Ras malai are delectable steamed dumplings of ricotta cheese soaked in flavored thickened milk. While you're at it, try the creamy bites of peda, divine bite-size pieces of soft milk fudge, crowned with crunchy pistachio nuts.
Meet the owners
Running Brij Mohan is a family affair. The owners are Parmjit Gaba and his wife, Anita. They count on their family to keep the place humming. For example, Parmjit Gaba’s older brother, Sohan Gaba, and his wife, Kamlesh, are a constant presence at the restaurant.
"We kids have other jobs, but pitch in on the weekends," the couple's daughter Shivali Gaba said. She is often the family's appointed spokesperson and translator.
Parmjit and Anita Gaba took a chance when they opened Brij Mohan in December 2005. As vegetarians, they understood that mainstream diners didn't exactly flock to vegetarian Indian restaurants on their night out.
But Parmjit is no stranger to the restaurant trade, and he's certainly no ordinary cook. He has been in this business for more than 35 years. Originally from Punjab, India, Parmjit and his older brother, Sohan, started a tea shop in their teens to earn a living.
Their talent and hard work led to their success, eventually expanding into catering, the addition of a sweets shop, and even a dairy business, selling products like milk, butter and cheese.
In 1999, Parmjit made the big move to Cincinnati to cook at Ambar India restaurant in Clifton. For six years, he dished up memorable food at the restaurant, rising to the rank of head chef before striking out on his own.
Today, Parmjit heads up the kitchen at Brij Mohan, and Anita runs the front-of-the-house.
"Uncle joined us about five years ago," Shivali said, referring to Sohan. Sohan's wife, who Parmjit affectionately refers to as "big mom," makes all the appetizers.
The Gaba family is serious about the food they put out.
"We use the best material to make our food," Sohan said. In fact, he wants anyone who's ever tasted their food to remember the restaurant.
Parmjit knows his food. He can tell if something makes the cut just by looking at it. “I know if something is good or no good,” he said, further adding, "No compromise."
Brij Mohan is one of the few northern Indian restaurants that does not serve meat.
"A number of our customers come here because we're vegetarian," Shivali said. According to her, while other restaurants
may accommodate vegetarian requests, diners may still worry about the possibility of "cross-contamination" with meat.
This is no small matter, as vegetarianism in India is almost always driven by religious beliefs, rather than personal choices.
Brij Mohan serves up the flavors of northern India with the use of ingredients like ginger, garlic, onion, tomato, cumin, turmeric, some black pepper and red pepper. Butter, and paneer--a young cheese made fresh at the restaurant--are also staple ingredients.
"We don't use too many spices, because they can overpower the food. We try to keep to our roots, and keep things minimal," Shivali said. "Less is more."
The cuisine is distinctly different from the spicier brand of southern Indian cooking. The use of cardamom, bay leaf, curry leaves and cinnamon in southern India creates a headier flavor profile.
Following the traditions of Mughlai cuisine, some dishes at Brij Mohan are prepared with a touch of cream. These more luxurious items include navrattan korma, malai kofta and shahi paneer.
The extensive flavor possibilities in Indian cuisine keep the food lively, and delicious, even in the absence of meat.
"Some people think all we eat are steamed vegetables and salad," said Shivali, a vegetarian herself. "You'll be surprised how easy it is to substitute vegetables for meat, and not miss it."
By the way
Brij Mohan will expand into the space next door in the next six months. This will be the second expansion since it opened in 2005. The first expansion took place in 2008, more or less doubling the space. The owners plan to use the new area to better separate the preparation and display of their extensive line of sweets.