Cardamom adds a quality Indian option to northeast Ann Arbor
Note: the article has been changed to correct information on the source of the teas.
The first thing to like about Cardamom, which opened on April 26, is that parking is readily available, since it's not located downtown. Owner Binod Dhakal thought that would be a selling point of the Courtyard Shops location, on Plymouth Road near the University of Michigan College of Engineering and the many college employees occupying the former Pfizer space.
"I didn't see any good Indian restaurants on the North side of town," he said. Dhakal was manager of Shalimar since 1998 and longed to open his own restaurant. He said he attempts to stand out by offering some dishes from his native Nepal, as well as goat entrees and salads for those who don't want to stray too far from American fare—items you don't see in typical Ann Arbor Indian restaurants. Within a few weeks, he'll also offer the opportunity to order via Facebook.
1739 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover.
- Liquor: No
- Prices: Moderate. Many dishes are $12 and $13; the highest priced dish is $22.
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access:Yes
The buzz phrase here is "fresh Indian," made from locally grown produce and fresh-squeezed juices. Cardamom has a menu that's appealing not just in its bright design and map of India, but in the way it clearly outlines the various categories of dishes: starters, breads, and the various curries: chicken, lamb, goat, seafood and vegetarian and explains how each is prepared. The menu also provides a color-coded system for dishes that are vegetarian, vegan, and nut or gluten free.
I got my first meal off to a good start by selecting one of the fine loose teas, the lime ginger rooibos. The restaurant uses teas manufactured by Rishi.
We started with the delicious vegetable pakora, which tasted like a potato pancake, except it also included cauliflower and spinach and maintained a lighter texture. The vegetable samosa, similarly, had a satisfying coating and was lightly fried. The tamarind and cilantro mint chutneys provided a refreshing complement.
All the Indian breads we sampled had a soft, pillowy consistency, perfect for sopping up the sauce from our dishes. The onion kulcha had a perfect hint of onion flavoring. I particularly liked the kashmiri naan, something I had not sampled before, stuffed with almonds, cashew and mango chutney, a wonderful combination that added a sweetness to the bread.
I also enjoyed the aloo prantha, which contained a thin layer of potatoes. Cumin provided an Indian accent to the tomato soup, but it wasn't my favorite. It was not as thick and creamy as I would have liked and tasted a bit like tomato juice.
The chicken tikka salad provided a light, healthful option. I ordered it with a lime vinaigrette dressing that nicely complimented the fresh greens and the nimki chips, a flour chip that tasted similar to a pita chip. Moist, delicious pieces of smoky chicken made this dish a winner. Except for the addition of cilantro, this reminded me of the Mediterranean fatoosh salad.
The best dish of all that I sampled was one that our server recommended on our second visit, the chettinad lamb, one of the lamb curries. Boneless pieces of tender lamb were served in a heavenly coconut and poppy-seed curry sauce, a wonderful melding of sweet and spicy.
The chicken curries we ordered, the tikka masala and the chicken makhni, tasted virtually identical to each other. Both had a tomato sauce base, though the makhni had a cashew paste, while the tikki masala was tandoori roasted, but those differences weren't distinctive. The chicken was tender and flavorful, though, with curry providing a nice kick.
The seafood curry we ordered, seafood korma, inventively paired shrimp, scallops and fish in a creamy white almond cashew sauce. I really enjoyed the way that the nutty and sweet flavorings, including coconut, combined with the seafood. That same sauce also worked well on the vegetable korma we ordered on our second visit.
The aloo gobi, cauliflower and potatoes in a tomato sauce, was also great, though it was quite spicy even though we requested it mild. The only weak link in our entrees was the grilled masala salmon. The thick piece of fish was slightly overcooked and was bland; it was difficult to decipher the advertised ginger and garlic spices. However, the vegetables that accompanied it were perfectly cooked.
Entrees are brought in the same sparkling white dishes that you find at Shalimar; they're a similarly modest size. The sauce seemed to saturate the meat and vegetables. I had to go surfing for the seafood pieces in my seafood korma, as well as the chicken in my chicken dishes, as they tended to get lost in those sauces.
Our server on our first visit discouraged us from ordering the Indian desserts, but we wanted to sample the authentic cuisine. We should have listened, especially when it came to ordering the pista kulfi, described as pistachio ice cream, but which had a medicinal taste and was more the consistency of ice milk. The gulab jamun were similar to donuts, but the rosewater scented syrup was overly sweet.
Rice pudding resembled watery oatmeal in appearance. I like mine to be thicker, but it ended up tasting better than it looked, and was a nice way to cleanse the palate after indulging in our spicier entrees. On our second visit, we played it safe with an American dessert, cheesecake cardamom. The addition of cardamom and almonds in the crust was a nice touch and the filling was light and creamy.
If there is one major drawback to cardamom, it's that it's a victim of its own popularity. Dhakal's instincts were right; this restaurant seems to fill a niche for Indian food on the north side of town, and the restaurant was at capacity both times we visited. Staff were ill equipped to handle the full house. On our first visit, the server promptly refilled water glasses and our appetizers came out right away, but we had to wait quite a while for the main course. The server also neglected to bring a chai that I ordered. The second time around, when we didn't order appetizers, we waited close to 45 minutes for our food.
This is a shame, since overall, I think this food rivals any of other Indian restaurants in town. Also, prices are quite reasonable. If the owner addresses the service issue, this is a place I would happily return to often.
Julie Halpert reviews restaurants for AnnArbor.com.