Current’s Odyssey Series enters its fifth year, resolutely seeking the best food and drink in Washtenaw County. Past Odysseys have tended to stick with the familiar (pizza, burgers, BBQ, etc.), and have only once before journeyed into foreign lands (2013’s Sushi Odyssey). The time has come to again travel internationally. We bring you the Indian Odyssey
By Nick Roumel
Please do not bore me with your reflexive derision. I can hear you now: “What do you know about Indian food, Roumel? Did you travel by elephant to Bangalore, as have I, and sampled genuine street food from a dhaba? Or are you eating–harrumph–corrupt, westernized ‘banquet food’ from the local Indian buffet?”
Well, I confess, the answer is pretty much the latter. Our journey took us no further east than Ypsilanti. But what is found in local restaurants cannot be so easily dismissed. The history of Indian food is as complex as the history of its native country, and defies clear categorization (see the sidebar on tandoori chicken, for example).
Ultimately we did not seek to judge what was “authentic.” Our Odyssey is simply to present what we found, compare the various restaurants, and help you find what you might like to try. Our conclusions may also surprise you. For example, “Cardamom,” an excellent Indian restaurant on Plymouth Road, is staggeringly popular. Even after their current expansion plans, you will probably be hard pressed to obtain immediate seating. But we also found delicious, home cooked and impressively presented food at other restaurants, even where we were virtually the only ones there. Let the tale of our journey begin.
Our Odyssey team is constantly evolving. This one was a small core of veteran “seekers.”
- Nick Roumel
- Ken “Sky” Walker
- Patti Smith
- Ken Anderson
- Cynthia Hodges
- Heather Leavitt
- and two newcomers
- Lisa Gottlieb (of Selma Cafe fame)
- Brad Wicklund
We don’t let any restaurant know in advance that we are reviewing, but when our scoresheets cover the table, it becomes apparent.
For each restaurant, team members had a scoresheet listing the six dishes and asking for comments on appearance, aroma, portion size, ingredients, spice or flavor, and any sauce or condiment. Ultimately each dish was scored on a tenpoint scale – “10” reserved for food that you’d “shove your mama aside” to eat; “1” signifying a substance “not fit for beast nor compost.” “6” was considered average. To determine the top three restaurants, we totaled and averaged the scores for each of the seven dishes we sampled. Under that system we present to you our Odyssey winners – Suvai Palace and Cardamom – which finished in a virtual tie for first place.
– a fried, triangular shaped pastry that originated in the Middle East and was introduced to India during the Muslim Delhi Sultanate from the 12th-15th centuries. The most common Indian samosas are filled with a mixture of potatoes, onions, peas and green chilies, wrapped in a pastry made of fine maida flour, and deep fried. There are regional variations involving size, spices, fillings and condiments. The samosas we sampled were sometimes served with tamarind chili and/or cilantro mint garlic chutneys.
– is a leavened flatbread. Although the word is of Persian origin and now somewhat generic, it is thought to have been created in the Indian tandoors (outdoor clay ovens). Indian naans are often flavored with nigela seeds (also called kalonji or black caraway) and topped with melted clarified butter. Restaurants usually offer flavorings or stuffings such as garlic, savory fruit/nut mixtures, lamb, or vegetables similar to those used in samosas. For consistency’s sake, we always ordered garlic naan.
– originates from the Punjab region and consists of slow cooked black lentils (dal) and red kidney beans, richly finished with butter and cream. Because it takes a long time to prepare, it is typically reserved for banquets or special occasions.
– is an elegantly prepared basmati rice dish, layered with meat, seafood, vegetables, and/or fruits and nuts. It too has Persian influences and features many variations, sharing similarities with another Indian rice dish, pulao. We stuck to vegetable biryanis, and saw the gamut: from Cardamom’s Hyderabadi (southern Indian) version cooked with cinnamon and cloves, baked with onions, raisins, cashews and mint; to Suvai Palace’s presentation bursting with the bold flavor of pickled vegetables. It is often accompanied by raita (yogurt with garlic, cucumber and herbs).
– Vindaloo is derived from the name for a Portuguese meat dish flavored in wine and garlic. While there are popular Indian versions, it is most widely known as a staple of Indian restaurants for Western diners. It is a tomato-based curry, marked by the piquancy of ginger and vinegar, moderately hot spices, and perhaps sweet enhancements such as cinnamon and clove. Potatoes are often mixed with the meat.
– A lassi is a yogurt based drink popular throughout India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Mango lassi is sweet, with fresh mango pulp; a traditional salted lassi may include a bit of roasted cumin. One or two mango lassis we tried may have been mellowed with some savory spice. With its yogurt base, lassis are an effective and refreshing complement to spicier Indian entrees.
Only a handful of restaurants in Washtenaw County served all six dishes. We included two that came close. One had no lamb, so we substituted goat; another had no black lentils, so we tried a yellow dal. The restaurants we surveyed were: Cardamom, Shalimar, Suvai Palace, Madras Masala, Kitchen of India, and Nirmal.
We did not include: “HutK Chaats” and “Curry On,” which feature their own takes on Indian “street food;” “Earthen Jar,” a mostly vegan buffet; nor restaurants featuring an occasional Indian dish, like the “Lunch Room’s” inventive “Indian night” (we did review HutK, Earthen Jar and the Lunch Room in 2012’s “Vegetarian Odyssey”). Nor did we include “Taste of India,” the sister restaurant of Suvai Palace located on State Street. We were assured by Suvai Palace’s gracious manager, Prabbhu, that the food in the two family owned restaurants was essentially the same.
1739 Plymouth Rd.
Opened in 2011, this chic eatery has blown away the competition. Chances are that anyone you ask about the best Indian around will cite Cardamom. Tucked into a narrow space (but in the midst of a major expansion), they take no reservations. A recent Saturday wait at 6 PM was quoted at 30-40 minutes. But it’s worth the wait for Cardamom’s fresh, high-quality, and well-prepared Indian cuisine, tinged with Western influences.
Cardamom boasts an expansive menu, features lamb and goat, and serves beer and wine. Tables are close, but theirs were by far the best-dressed, with linens and good china. It had the feel of an actual restaurant, which is sort of a head-scratching statement unless you visited some of the competition, which were sometimes content to slap a paper-plated dish on a folding table. In contrast, Cardamom had a solid feel with tasteful accoutrements.
The food was uniformly impressive, and the restaurant is deserving of its accolades. Service was attentive and knowledgeable. The presentation was what one would expect in a destination restaurant. However, and this conclusion was perhaps the most surprising of our Odyssey, while the food was very good, it did not blow us away. This statement in no way denigrates Cardamom. I would go there again and again. But taken in isolation, not a single dish (except for the mango lassi) was the best we tasted.
Cardamom’s massive samosas were served with two delicious chutneys, tamarind, and a garlicky cilantro-mint. Brad thought that without the accompaniments, the samosas were a bit bland; but Patti appreciated their subtle savory flavor. Their tandoori chicken was extremely tender and flavorful, with a complex mix of herbs and spices. I thought I caught a touch of fennel. Lisa loved its charred smokiness.
The tender lamb vindaloo was also very good, flavorful with a sneaky heat. Cardamom’s creamy and luscious “mango lassi,” thick with tart yogurt, was a brilliant orange that Patti called “liquid David Caruso.” (Who David Caruso is, and why is evocative of an orange yogurt drink, is beyond the scope of this column.)
400 S. Division St.
Ann Arbor MI
Newly housed in the former Raja Rani space, Suvai Palace is still building a following. The décor was a bit haphazard on our visit; immediately upon entering we were greeted by a mural depicting an Indian woman; the Indian flag; and a Christmas tree. We went there on the same night that the lines were out the door at Shalimar, but here there was only one other table with customers. The feel was “homey,” Patti wrote “like being in someone’s house.” Indeed, the manager Prabbhu made us feel sincerely welcome.
More importantly, Suvai Palace wowed us with their food. Everything was at least above average and some dishes were excellent. Ken wrote of the chicken, brought on a sizzling plate: “Beautifully presented platter with wonderfully sautéed vegetables. Sweet, light flavor balances the wonderful savoriness of the chicken.” Patti was more succinct, writing, “Holy s***, YES!!!” Not content to score mere “10s,” Lisa added exclamation points.
Ken also effused about the biryani, calling it a “wonderful combination of vegetables with a bright set of spices.” Heather enjoyed the addition of pickled vegetables, which set Suvai Palace’s biryani apart. The lamb was also different, with pronounced tones of cinnamon and clove harmonized with the gingervinegary vindaloo sauce. The dal makhani was bold, with structure and depth. And the mango lassi tasted just like a childhood creamsicle. Sigh. But with no beer and wine, you’d better like creamsicles.
328 Maynard St.
This popular campus eatery bills itself as serving “South Indian, Indo-Chinese and Moghlai dishes.” Surprisingly toney given its location, we felt comfortable at our linen table and appreciated the tasteful décor.
The quality of presentation and visual appeal was especially apparent with the biryani and naan. The rice dish featured fresh vegetables, cashews, cinnamon and clove. “One of the best biryanis on the tour!” raved Ken. Sky agreed. The naan got similar reviews, loaded with fresh garlic and herb. “One of the few naans that could be eaten on its own,” said Patti. Continuing in her shy, retiring way, she added, “No need to sop s*** up with it.”
The meat dishes were a bit trickier. The beautifully displayed tandoori was belied by mediocre chicken, that seemed as if “it had been out playing in the sun long before it was slaughtered.” Guess who said that. Guess. As for Sky, who was anticipating fire in his mouth, he concluded the flavor “did not annihilate my taste buds. Seems mild.” The lamb was also lacking in tenderness.
Madras Masala redeemed itself with crispy and flavorful samosas, chock full of potato pieces, served with “top notch” chutneys including a tasty tamarind-chili. We’d go back for these, heaping dishes of steaming biryani, and baskets of their puffy, flavorful naan.
307 S. Main St.
Shalimar benefits from its prime Main Street location, and its prices necessarily reflect that high-rent setting. Diners were lined up out the door when we were leaving there, eventually ushered into either the ground floor dining room, or the surprisingly well-appointed basement. Shalimar does not disappoint, with good food up and down the spectrum.
The lamb vindaloo especially stood out. It was Heather’s favorite dish there, and Lisa scored it 9s across the page. We also liked the samosas, with two excellent chutneys, a savory cilantro-garlic and a ruby red tamarind chili. Patti praised the chicken: “well-cooked, lovely presentation.” The mango lassi was “smooth, creamy, peachy.”
Unfortunately, on the night we visited, the service was completely unacceptable. The last straw: after asking for the check, in the less-than-half-filled basement area, I had to approach a server after over thirty, yes, thirty minutes of waiting. If you have the cache of a Main Street location, you have to step up. Unfortunately, Shalimar is still grooming the batter’s box.
2874 Washtenaw Ave.
What to make of this entity in the former Temptations location? Communicating with them was like Columbus landing on Mars. Food was withheld until every dish was ready, regardless of how long it had been sitting; then it was brought to our table in biodegradable containers. Mysterious pronouncements were provided about the Gatorade bucket in the dining room – did it contain water, or mango lassi? And finally there was the silverware issue: it seemed to take an inordinate amount of negotiation to have something to eat with.
But this was not merely food. Oh, no. Nirmal (whose phone number is “1-844-KNOW-BMI) is all about health. They helpfully provide a formula, on the back of the menu, for calculating one’s body mass index. Right? Like you’re going to say to your friends, “Let’s go to Nirmal and calculate our BMI!” (Maybe I’m just resentful because at 5’9” and 157 lbs., it turned out I was the fattest one in our group.)
Despite all these strange goings-on, Nirmal’s food was pretty good. The biryani included what Ken called a “fun combination” of cinnamon, prune, squash, cardamom pods, onion, garlic, and hot pepper. Or what Sky concluded, “chunks of stuff I couldn’t eat.” Warning: remove the cinnamon stick and cardamom pod.
We also liked the garlicky boneless chicken (the closest thing we found to tandoori), moist and tender white meat and brimming with flavor. The samosas also gained praise for their crisp, greaseless pastry; Cynthia liked the “well spiced, tangy” tamarind sauce but others found it too sweet.
The mango lassi was delicious, with the sweet fruit balanced by a fresh, pleasantly sour yogurt. We were less enamored of the vindaloo. As Nirmal doesn’t serve lamb, we had to go with a different meat. Let’s just say that our team advises you: “Just don’t goat there.” Nirmal does not have much atmosphere. Sky was blunt, comparing it to “a ghetto motel that charges $500/night for the Super Bowl.” But what it lacked in ambience it made up for in value, especially the “food box” which provides five items for just $5.00. Also, Nirmal does not accept tips. In all, it doesn’t take a lot of money to alter your BMI with a heaping amount of Nirmal’s good food.
We can’t close an Odyssey review without Patti making a gratuitous comment about a certain part of her anatomy. All this talk about BMI, she explained, “makes my ass feel sad.”
The term “hole in the wall” is overused. This was a hole in the wall. Kitchen of India is two other things: an Indian grocery store, and a take out joint. A sit down restaurant it is not, although there are a few plastic tables. This comes in handy because the food is so good, you don’t want to wait and take it home, but eat it as soon as possible.
In the back there is a genuine clay tandoor, and I have seen the chef’s burn scars up and down his forearms. The naan baked in there is fabulous, supple and pillowy. Heather said “It’s hot and the butter is pooling on it. It’s beautiful.” Lisa said it was “really comforting and deelish.”
The huge, crispy samosas were scrumptious, with flavor and a little heat on their own, served only with a tamarind sauce. We also loved the rich, creamy dal which earned “10s” across the board from me. The chicken and lamb were fresh and tender; the lamb’s wonderful flavors made it Brad and Heather’s favorite dish here.
Only the biryani got mixed reviews, packed with vegetables but short on flavor for some, and served without raita. Patti thought the rice “could have been from her mom’s Rice-a-Roni box circa 1978.”
Overall, we loved Kitchen of India. The chef gifted us with kheer, an Indian rice pudding. The prices were extremely reasonable. This is a place we’d return to without hesitation.
The Indian restaurant food in Washtenaw County may not be what Aunt Meera cooks at home in Jaipur, but a satisfying meal can be had just about anywhere we visited, especially at Suvai Palace, Cardamom, and Kitchen of India. Be careful, though, if you’re not used to Indian food. While the heat level is not overwhelming for Western tastes (we always ordered “medium” when given a choice), the variety of spices and richness of particular dishes (especially the dal and the vindaloo) may, to put it delicately, play tricks with one’s system.
Until we clean the pipes for the next Odyssey, your intrepid seekers are signing off, and wishing you a fond Bidaya