In the great lexicon of ethnic food found throughout metro Detroit, Indian cuisine is represented at many places and many ways, but nowhere as vividly and distinctly than at a restaurant in Ann Arbor named Cardamom.
Since it opened in 2013, Cardamom has become a roaring success with serious local foodies. So much so, that there is often a wait for a table or a booth, even on weekday nights.
If it weren’t for the name, it would be hard to discern what type of restaurant Cardamom is exactly. The decor is anchored around a red and brown color scheme and polished granite tabletops. Cardamom fits more into the mode of New Asia, mirroring the leaps and bounds of modernization and standards of living in major cities on the Indian subcontinent and throughout the Far East.
In both its food and its atmosphere, Cardamom is sophisticated, polished, and unfussy; it’s upscale and bustling, with a full bar, a small waiting area, and a dining room made up of booths, banquettes, and two- and four-top tables.
“We never imagined we’d be doing the volume we have been. We shattered our plan’s sales goals in the first month,” says co-owner Becky Winkler-Dhakal, a native Ann Arborite, who with chef and husband, Binod Dhakal, a native of Nepal, owns the restaurant.
“We had to hire way more people than we expected we would’ve needed,” she says.
Cardamom has become highly popular with the Ann Arbor’s sizable Indian-Pakistani-Asian community, but it also attracts a good mix of locals as well as crowds from University of Michigan’s substantial student population.
When the owners married in 2002, they set a goal of opening their own restaurant.
The couple met at Shalimar, a longtime traditional Indian restaurant on Main Street in the center of town, where Binod was the general manager and Becky was a customer.
From 1995-2011, Becky worked at Zingerman’s, the famous deli in town, where she wore many hats, including general manager, purchaser, sales, trainer, consultant, and merchandising manager. In 2013, they opened Cardamom in the Courtyard Shops complex on Plymouth Road.
At home Binod cooked Indian dishes and some of his native Nepalese dishes, such as Momos, now on the Cardamom menu, which are basically chicken or vegetable dumplings, with an accompanying creamy red pepper chutney.
Cardamom’s food leads all else. Yes, it’s Indian and traditional, but what makes it shine at a higher level is the vibrant spicing and utter freshness of everything that goes into the dishes.
Take just the meats, which are goat, lamb, or chicken. Especially good is the wonderful meaty dish of Bapu’s Goat Chops, which are marinated in a garam masala overnight and served with a bed of spiced rice.
The garam masala is made from spices (among them cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, and others) roasted in-house. Once cooked, it is ground immediately. The spices lend a complexity to the dish that marries the meat superbly.
“In Indian cooking, the chef always makes his own garam masala, which needs to be treated very much like coffee,” Binod explains. “It’s always better when you fresh roast it and grind it right away as you are ready to use.” That process, he says, imparts a much deeper and broader flavor. But it is also a very laborious process. “What’s most important is you have to understand how to put it together,” he says.
There are also tandoori entrees, plus a number of chicken, goat, lamb, seafood, and vegetarian curries. Some of the most exotic and elegant dishes are the Hyderabadi Biryani: chicken, goat, and vegetable dishes from the region of Andhra Pradesh, in which the rice is cooked with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, green cardamom, cumin, and black pepper, then baked with onions, raisins, cashews, and fresh mint. It is accompanied by raita, which is a yogurt-based sauce, and a hard-boiled egg garnish.
“When Binod cooks at home, it’s fresh produce, it’s high-quality meats, it’s hand chopping, it’s fresh spices, which are ground and roasted right before they go into a dish,” Becky says. “All those things add up to really great flavor in the end dish. We knew if he could do that kind of cooking in a fun, fresh restaurant setting it would be well received.
“Coming from Zingerman’s,” says Becky, “I was sort of ‘raised’ on this idea of not cutting corners, going for the very best ingredients … which is actually kind of backwards to how a lot of the restaurant industry has traditionally functioned.”
Cardamom has a wine selection that’s curated specifically to pair with Indian food. On a recent visit, the list included a very good little fruity French viognier that comes across dry with Indian food; a oral German gewürztraminer, and several lighter stylish reds from France and California, such as a pinot noir and a gamay Beaujolais.
I am a meat eater who is not particularly enamored with vegetarian dishes, but across a dozen or more visits to Cardamom, it is the only place where I find the vegetarian dishes to be the most attractive and best-tasting items on the menu.
A personal favorite is the Bhindi Masala, a lighter okra vegetable curry made with ginger, garlic, onion, and tomato. And the Palak Paneer, a housemade cheese and spinach curry in creamy sauce with fenugreek leaves, which have an aroma and taste similar to maple syrup.
“Our supplier tells us that we buy more tomato and onion from them than any other customer,” says Becky, emphasizing a commitment to fresh, from-scratch cooking. “We don’t use canned or frozen products, and it all requires more work.”
“At the end of an evening,” says Binod, “I liter- ally have no food left from the batches I make for that day. So each day, basically we start all over again …. My goal is learn more as I go and make better products.”
1739 Plymouth Rd., Ann Arbor; 734-662-2877. L & D Tues.-Sun.