by Lee Lawrence
"We'll bring lunch with us," I had told my mom. Always happy to eat a meal she doesn't have to cook herself, she didn't ask what my husband and I were planning to pick up. Her dismay, though, when we set down the bags, was definite.
"I don't like Indian food! You know I don't like curry." A couple of bad buffets and an aversion to curry powder had cemented this antipathy. Recently, however, she'd cooked a delicious stew for us--one she called Jumbo's Chicken, a recipe from a Sri Lankan tennis coach. The bird was braised in a spiced tomato-yogurt sauce, and it was most certainly a chicken curry.
"But it doesn't have any curry powder," she had protested. "And it's not Indian."
"No, but look at that list of spices. And Sri Lanka sits at India's doorstep. The cuisines overlap. You've made a curry, Mom."
I could tell she wasn't entirely convinced, so under the guise of popping over for lunch, I hoped to show her the variety and appeal of Indian cuisine. Takeout from Cardamom, the new Indian restaurant in the Courtyard Shops on Plymouth Road, seemed like the ideal ammunition for my mission. It's been open for less than six months, but Ann Arbor aficionados of Indian food have already embraced it, with lines on weeknights as well as weekends. My husband and I had endured the wait and found the food particularly tasty. Could Mom be persuaded?
Naturally, we didn't go hard core. We'd ordered tandoori chicken; Varanasi aloo, cheese, almond, and raisin-stuffed boiled potatoes in a fabulous creamy fennel-flecked tomato sauce; baigan bartha, mashed eggplant and peas in a spiced tomato sauce; cucumber raita, the traditional yogurt relish; and Kashmiri naan, a soft, pillowy flat bread dusted with coconut and stuffed with nuts and mango chutney. Assured we had specified mild heat levels, and always willing to give most anything a try, Mom tasted the vegetable curries, and then, nodding, seriously tucked in. The three
of us polished off that lunch--probably a bit more than any of us needed--without any hesitation or struggle.
I'd also ordered takeout for an earlier dinner with friends. We tried many of the "classics"--tandoori chicken, even moister and more flavorful than at Mom's lunch; a goat biryani, nicely spiced and aromatic, with tender meat and fluffy rice; rogan josh, the lamb succulent in its earthy brick-red yogurt sauce; Kerala shrimp curry, the coconut sauce tasty if not extraordinary; and a basket of assorted, freshly baked breads, each disc wonderfully distinct from the other. All of us, novice and experienced alike, found Cardamom's take on these standards particularly well done, a notch or two above what many restaurants offer.
Our reactions to the evening's appetizers were also uniform, if less enthusiastic. New for most of us were vegetable momos, Nepali steamed vegetable dumplings. Binod Dhakal, Cardamom's owner, is from Nepal, as are many of his employees, and this street food is a favorite of his family. We found the momos rather bland, however, even when dipped in the roasted tomato-Szechuan pepper chutney that accompanied them. Dry and somewhat flavorless, the bharawan aloo tikki--sauteed mashed potato patties stuffed with peas and raisins and garnished with tamarind and cilantro-mint chutneys--also failed to impress us. However, onion bhaji--shredded, spiced onion dipped in chick pea batter and deep fried--were exactly what onion rings should always be and rarely are: crispy, oniony, and delicious.
Another time, we arranged to meet friends at 8 p.m. one Tuesday in mid-summer. Even on a weeknight and at that late hour, we encountered a wait for a table either inside the brightly painted dining room or outside in the narrow patio that lines one side of the restaurant. Fortunately, a mild evening lessened the vexation of waiting on the sidewalk. Once seated, almost forty-five minutes later, we found the service knowledgeable and friendly, if a bit erratic--due, I think, both to the kitchen and waitstaff. Drinks came out very slowly, as did one of the appetizers, but the entrees swept in as soon as we had finished the last bit of our starters.
We let our friends, Indian food enthusiasts, choose our meal. Their appetizer selections confirmed my initial impressions of the momos as dull and the onion bhaji as addictive. For entrees, our friends led us farther down the tandoori list. A generous cilantro-yogurt coating nicely accented angaarey shrimp, jumbo specimens that arrived perfectly roasted from the tandoor oven. Though some declared the shrimp too large for the preparation, I thought them delicious. On the other hand, I found the achari paneer tikka, shingles of homemade cheese marinated in Indian pickle spices before grilling, to be just too much bland, dense cheese. Bihari kabab featured savory chunks of lamb tenderized in a gingery spiced yogurt before being lowered into the clay oven.
Much as we liked the tandooris, we favored the curries that night even more. As with my mother, we scraped clean our dish of baigan bartha, the eggplant-pea curry. We also finished off an order of karahi goat stew. Though some of the pieces of meat were tough and others tender, the abundant sauce--redolent of cardamom, cloves and mint--was fabulous alone on rice; no spoonful remained. We also enjoyed dal makhni, a puree of buttery black lentils, though the "hot" spice level we requested registered more as a "medium."
Many dishes remain to be tried on Cardamom's enormous menu, including a few entree salads that fuse Indian flavors to an American concept and an array of traditional and Westernized desserts. Consistently, whether flavors were to my taste or not, I found the restaurant's food fresh, thoughtfully prepared, and carefully cooked. Nothing slapdash, reheated, or steam table-weary came out of Cardamom's kitchen. We paid for that quality in longer cooking times and higher prices--but those are prices I'm glad to pay. And now that Mom has tasted what Indian food can be like, I'm pretty sure she'll happily join me at one of Cardamom's tables.
1739 Plymouth Road
Sun. & Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Closed Mon.
Appetizers, breads, and sides $1.50-$9; entrees $10-$22. Lunch dishes $6-$12.
[Originally published in September, 2013.]