The Global Table: Mantra on the Hill in Mt. Adams takes diners on a contemporary tour of India

MT. ADAMS - Editor's Note: "The Global Table" is a new weekly column that 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 Greater Cincinnati. 

Mantra on the Hill

Where: 934 Hatch St, Cincinnati
Food: Contemporary Indian cuisine

Prices: Entrees range from $11 - $20

"Indian food is not just curries, and a curry is not just one particular spice. A curry is a savory dish in a sauce of some sort, whether it be from a tomato base, onion base, coconut base or cashew base. It depends on which region you're in." -- Yajan Upadhyaya, chef and owner

Signature dishes

Mantra on the Hill offers a braised lamb shank entree called laal maas, which means red meat. The color red in the name refers to the sauce, which is prepared from a base of tomato and roasted red pepper, and warmed with spices like star anise and cloves.

Another crowd-pleaser is the coconut scallops starter. Seared scallops are dressed in an aromatic coconut sauce, with accents of toasted coriander and curry leaf (a type of herb).

Meet the chef and owner

"Food has always been my passion," Upadhyaya said.

Born in Mumbai, India, he moved to Boston at the age of seven--never dreaming of becoming a chef.

"I studied architecture at Northeastern University but realized that was not my cup of tea," he recalled. When Upadhyaya was asked to design a restaurant, he got his first real look into a new world. 

He  loved what he found there so much he enrolled in culinary school at Johnson & Wales. After graduation, Upadhyaya wasted no time in opening a string of modern Indian restaurants in the Northeast. 

"My friends and I opened five restaurants in total, in various locations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.  It was fun," Upadhyaya said.

When a friend in Cincinnati asked Upadhyaya to help open a restaurant, he did not hesitate. In fact, he sensed opportunity for his brand of contemporary Indian food. 

In 2002, Upadhyaya opened Cumin in East Hyde Park to the acclaim of  diners and critics alike. He quickly became the symbol for modern Indian food. Upadhyaya left Cumin in 2010 when he and his business partner's visions diverged.

In 2012, Upadhyaya took his vision to Mt. Adams, and started Mantra on the Hill. 

"I love what I do. I'm still an architect but of a culinary kind," Upadhyaya added.

Cultural flavor

Upadhyaya has traveled extensively in India. He is passionate about bringing the wealth of its regional flavors to the table.

"There's more than just North Indian food, you know, the familiar tikka masala, tandoori chicken and palak paneer. My menu goes from north to south, and east to west," Upadhyaya added. "I'm still serving Indian food, but I've simplified it and incorporated the regional flavors of India. The food is presented in a contemporary and appealing way."

Upadhyaya does not hesitate to put a global spin on his food, tapping into different techniques and ingredients. 

"I'll make, for example, dark chocolate creme brulee with Indian spices, mango panna cotta, or even saffron risotto which is like the traditional Indian kheer," he said.

By the way...

Wine lovers will appreciate the monthly prix fixe wine dinners at Mantra on the Hill, where five courses of food are paired with five wines. On occasion, the restaurant also offers beer and champagne dinners.

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek

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