Color, color everywhere and craft cocktails to drink.
by Sally Mitani
From the November, 2015 issue
Binod Dhakal and Becky Winkler-Dhakal opened Cardamom in a hurry in 2013: a hasty paint job and some reupholstering was about all they could afford for the former Famous Hamburger in Plymouth Courtyard Shops. In fact, there wasn't even much of a "they"--opening the restaurant mainly fell on Binod's shoulders because Becky still had a day job at U-M, and they had two small children (Ravi is now eleven and Sunil seven).
In little over two years, Cardamom has broken away from the pack of casual ethnic strip-mall restaurants--the kind that are always popping up and shutting down with the changing tides of the North Campus student population. Last year, Cardamom got a liquor license.
And this September, the liquor got to move into its own room: a bar where customers can eat, drink, or just loiter while waiting for a table. There's now a vestibule to cushion the icy blasts, and the bar keeps what Becky calls "all the drama" of transacting takeout orders out of the main dining room.
That dining room still looks pretty much the same--no white tablecloths--but with the bar as a catchment for the noisy stuff, it's become more tranquil and serene. Asked the secret to their upward trajectory when so many strip-mall restaurants with good food fail to thrive, they both insist they don't know how they did it. But then they proceed to describe exactly how they did it.
Becky says they wanted their restaurant in Ann Arbor--she's a native, and Binod's been here twenty years now. Also non-negotiable: "We wanted to do it by ourselves. That means doing it on a very small amount of money. With that amount of money, you can't go downtown. You can't, without investors. So we made the kind of restaurant we could afford to make, and we made it the kind of restaurant we would like to come to." The failed hamburger joint was the first place that met all their criteria.
Despite the location near
North Campus, Becky says they never thought of it as a student restaurant. "Of course we get students, but these neighborhoods on the other side of us are dense, as dense as the west side. I don't know why there aren't more full-service restaurants here. You know, being downtown is great, but there are times when you're having a hectic week, and you just want to park in a strip mall and do the simple thing."
Winkler-Dhakal, who used to work in marketing at Zingerman's--she made all the deli signs in the 1990s--naturally chose designer Lori Saginaw to plan the upgrade and expansion. Saginaw, whose husband Paul is co-owner of Zingerman's, is never afraid to play with big colors, and when it comes to India, there's a lot to play with.
"When you're in India, it's color, color everywhere," Becky says. Each wall or surface in the bar is painted one of five vivid, carefully chosen colors: pumpkin, plum, lime, peacock, and fuchsia. "Pumpkin, of course, is the color of curry. Plum and lime are both food colors too, and peacock is because peacocks run wild in the streets of Delhi," she says. "And that deep pink is a color you see a lot on the street in India. Both men and women wear it." The colors collide harmoniously, giving the room a warm, kinetic glow.
Cardamom's menu, carefully thought out from the beginning, hasn't changed much. Binod is from Nepal, and "at one point, we were thinking of doing more Nepali cuisine," Becky says, but "frankly, Indian food is a little more interesting." But they do make Nepali momos, little labor-intensive hand-wrapped dumplings. "They sell like crazy," Binod says. "There's a guy who drives down from Lansing for them."
Meticulous, detailed planning seems to come naturally to both owners. "When we opened we were worried about lunch," Becky says. "We knew we'd get business diners who would need something quick and didn't want to compromise quality by having a buffet--you run the risk of things drying out." Their solution: thalis, which are kind of the Indian equivalent of the Japanese bento box. "Because everyone is getting the same thing, they can be assembled really fast, but we change it every day. The kitchen staff likes that. The customers like it too."
"It's how Indians eat, too" says Binod. "Small portions of a lot of different things."
While Binod keeps the kitchen humming, Becky, usually more of a behind-the-scenes administrator, has been having fun making the new craft cocktail menu. She invented the Cardamom Old Fashioned, made with house-made cardamom-infused simple syrup, and discovered a classic from colonial Burma, the Peju Club. "It's made with gin, obviously--it came from a famous 'gentlemen's' club'--as well as fresh lime juice and orange curacao."
Then she nonchalantly tosses off still another comment that could be the secret to Cardamom's success: "We both love working. We get bored when we're just hanging around."
Cardamom, 1739-41 Plymouth Rd. (Courtyard Shops), 662-2877. Lunch Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner Tues.-Thurs. & Sun. 5-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-10:30 p.m. Closed Mon. cardamoma2.com
This article has been edited since it was published in the November 2015 Ann Arbor Observer. Lori Saginaw's connection to Zingerman's has been corrected.
[Originally published in November, 2015.]
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