Take a peek at the menu at Fayetteville’s Cardamom & Curry, and the appetizer list may lead to some questions. This is an Indian restaurant, right? And yet, there they are … chicken wings. Curry-rubbed, yes. But chicken wings all the same.
Of course, chicken wings aren’t exactly an Indian-eatery staple. But this is Indian-ish. And much like its Mexican-ish (hello, fried-chicken tacos) and Japanese-ish (nice to see you, miso shrimp and grits) counterparts currently making the rounds, Indian-ish—fusion, if you will—means a menu that riffs without replicating. Which is exactly what Fayetteville restaurateurs Jerrmy Gawthrop and Clayton Suttle want out of their casual, hyperlocal Fayetteville restaurant.
Yes, it’s a little different. But no, it’s not entirely out of character in Northwest Arkansas—particularly when you consider the culinary profile so deeply ingrained in the region. Indian cuisine’s focus on vegetables, grains, legumes and regionally accessible proteins such as chicken and goat easily adapts to foodstuffs available in the Ozarks, which perfectly aligns with the restaurateurs’ locally focused ethos. (The duo also owns vegetarian-friendly Greenhouse Grille, as well as Wood Stone Craft Pizza & Bar.)
“We serve more organic and locally sourced foods from this restaurant than we do at any of our others,” Gawthrop says.
At their newest restaurant, each dish weaves familiar spice profiles with locally sourced proteins and more veggies that we’re used to seeing in some Indian classics. Take the tikka masala: Here, the spicy, creamy tomato sauce is slightly thinner than usual, coating chunks of local chicken and a pile of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots alongside basmati rice. The sauce is also sweeter than some may remember, lightened by coconut milk. A black lentil dhal on the side makes the whole plate feel lighter. And then there’s the portion size. Here, everything is served on the same plate. No little boat of meat and sauce sitting to the side and, really, no need for a to-go box at the end of the meal.
Along with tikka masala, fans of Indian cuisine will find familiar dishes that include the likes of a paneer and vegetable korma, butter chicken, and a take on vindaloo. The Ozark Vindaloo uses locally raised goat and chicken, along with onion and garlic, in a thick, sinus-clearing sauce. Other entrees branch out from the norm, like the Lamb Rogan Josh, a dish of lamb, caramelized onions, chilis, garlic, clove and ginger with a split pea dhal. Expect the menu to rotate seasonally, with entrees such as pumpkin curry or Tahitian butternut squash getting added to the fall lineup.
Open for lunch and dinner, Cardamom’s strip-mall storefront (the former home of Hawaiian Brian’s) is understated and nearly hidden from view. An oversized marquee sign points diners in the right direction (the southeast corner of the complex). Inside, the one-room space is a sea of small tables with a row of red drum light shades illuminating hand-drawn illustrations of spices, labeled and framed along the eastern wall. A neutral grass-cloth-covered wall completes the low-key look. While beer, wine and cocktails are available, there’s no visible bar here. Gawthrop says they nixed a traditional bar in order to provide more seating room, but he was surprised when cocktails starting selling well in the restaurant’s first weeks.
The handful of house cocktails—each with a somewhat cringe-worthy name—include the Bollywood Bloody, made with house-infused chili vodka, coconut-curry bloody mary mix and curry pickles. There’s also a tamarind-spiked margarita and a mix of mango lassi (an Indian yogurt drink), coconut rum and toasted coconut dubbed the Lovely Lassi. On a recent visit, we sipped on a Mumbai Mule, the restaurant’s take on a traditional Moscow Mule with curried simple syrup added for kick. Served over ice in a tall tumbler glass, the vodka-and-ginger-beer classic felt less impressive than when served in its traditional copper mug. But the spicy syrup blended so well with the mellow ginger in the drink that we almost didn’t care. The Desi Gimlet (cucumber-infused gin, lime, mint simple syrup and soda) proved a better pairing for the meal than the mule, which mimicked food flavors a little too closely.
For noncocktailers, there are beers (mostly craft, many local) and wines (red, white and sparkling by the glass or bottle), along with a selection of teas and spritzers made with locally crafted syrups from the local mixology heroes at Pink House Alchemy. But if most visits are like ours, there won’t be too much time to sip—the food comes out fast. That’s especially nice for the takeout orders that kept rolling out the door throughout our meal.
In addition to the fusion entrees, starters include sweet-potato-and-kale samosas, fried cauliflower florets and a South Indian fish cake with mango chutney. For more aggressive appetites (and let’s face it, if you’re driving in from Little Rock, you’ll be ready for something hearty), there are those curry-rubbed local chicken wings, deep-fried and crisp with just a hint of spice, served up with curry-pickled veggies and a yogurt dipping sauce on the side.
Aware that the previously Indian eatery-less city of Fayetteville might not be all that familiar with some of the ingredients and dish names dotting the Cardamom & Curry menu, Gawthrop decided to include a glossary of terms on the back of the menu, which I’ll gladly cop to reading top to bottom. It’s probably the cookbook addict in me, but the glossary was more interesting than it was insulting. Cardamom, chai, curry, ghee, naan and tamarind might have been familiar, but my lexicon needed a refresher on aloo (a South Asian term for potato) and pakora (aka fried snack).
Customers aren’t the only ones unfamiliar with the deeper cuts of Indian cuisine. Gawthrop says his staff went through a crash course on the terminology in order to ably describe the Indian-come-Ozark dishes. Many were new for Gawthrop as well—at least when it came to cooking them. While they’d eaten plenty of Indian dishes, Gawthrop and Suttle didn’t seek out any formal training in Indian cuisine as they developed the menu.
“We just did what we knew, and did it in an Indian style,” Gawthrop says.
For fans of traditional American-style Indian restaurants in America—the ones with oversized portions, thick and rich sauces and unending options for naan—Cardamom & Curry will seem unusual. But that’s just what Gawthrop says makes the restaurant a special, and much needed, part of the Fayetteville restaurant community.
“Even when a more traditional Indian restaurant opens up in Fayetteville, you’ll still have this alternative using local ingredients to provide a new spin on this kind of cuisine.”