Cardamom dishes up contemporary vegetarian Asian food

Lu-Mei Chang opened Cardamom, an all-vegetarian spot in York Place that serves contemporary Asian cuisine, to show Charlottesville diners that meat-free meals can still be tasty. Photo by Tom McGovern Lu-Mei Chang opened Cardamom, an all-vegetarian spot in York Place that serves contemporary Asian cuisine, to show Charlottesville diners that meat-free meals can still be tasty. Photo by Tom McGovern

Lu-Mei Chang can’t stay away from the kitchen, and we’re all better off for it.

Chang, who grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, started cooking when she came to Charlottesville 28 years ago. She worked at Eastern Standard, one of Charlottesville’s first Asian restaurants (located where The Whiskey Jar is now) for years before she opened Monsoon in 1992.

She sold Monsoon (now Monsoon Siam) in 2011 with the intention of taking a few years off from cooking to rest and repair her body. During that time, Chang taught the occasional cooking class at The Happy Cook and at Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center and kept a steady blog, Cooking with Lu-Mei: Asian Cooking Adventures in Charlottesville, full of recipes for healthy Asian dishes, and tips on where to find the best ingredients for those dishes.

While she found teaching to be very rewarding, she missed cooking, and she just opened Cardamom, which dishes up contemporary vegetarian Asian food in the spot most recently occupied by Mican in York Place on the Downtown Mall.

In addition to Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and The Spot, which both serve vegetarian and vegan cuisine, Cardamom is one of just a few vegetarian-only restaurants in the city.

For now, the menu is small, offering noodle salads and dumplings, and dishes like eggplant tofu with holy basil, deep-fried crispy eggplant and tofu with ginger-garlic sauce and holy basil served with brown rice; tofu balls with coconut-lime sauce, a deep-fried mixture of tofu, potatoes, mushrooms, spinach and holy basil, served with brown rice; and creamy leek soup with yogurt dressed with crispy mochi rice crackers and walnut oil. Dishes cost about $10, though most are less, and diners can order Vietnamese coffee and pots of tea as well.

Chang wants to show Charlottesville diners that with fresh ingredients, well-crafted sauces and the right seasonings, vegetarian food can be both delicious and exciting.

New beginnings

“I’ve always had an appreciation for things that operate on the plane that borders the absurd and the meaningful, like watching one of the original ‘Star Trek’ episodes where it’s totally camp but there’s also substance if you’re looking for it,” says restaurateur Hamooda Shami.

Shami, who owns 11 Months, the space for extended restaurant/bar pop-ups in the former Yearbook Taco location on the Downtown Mall, will walk that fine line between absurdity and meaning with the first 11 Months concept: Sorry It’s Over.

Yes, Charlottesville, for 11 months, we’ll have a restaurant/bar with a breakup theme.

“It’s a sad subject, but we’re going to have some fun with it,” Shami says.

Shami worked with Richmond branding and interior design company Campfire & Co. on the branding and remodeling of the space (and on the restaurant’s Richmond location as well). He says we can expect “tacky neon” and actual breakup letters on the walls, plus some posters of sensitive-sad icons such as Al Green and The Smiths. Chef de cuisine Johnny Jackson and John Meiklejohn of The Whiskey Jar have developed a small, contemporary new American cuisine menu that Shami says will emphasize “quality over quantity.”

Bar manager David Faina will create the cocktail menu, and Shami says they’re in talks with Three Notch’d Brewing Company’s Collab House to craft a special beer that would play off the restaurant’s theme.

11 Months Presents…Sorry It’s Over will open in early February, so keep an eye out for the pale pink sign with a cartoon heart crying three fat tears.

Good eats

Three local craft food producers and the farmers who provide them with ingredients were honored last month at the 2017 annual Good Food Awards, which are organized by California sustainable food nonprofit Seedling Projects and “celebrate the kind of food we all want to eat: tasty, authentic and reasonably produced.” Both JM Stock Provisions and Timbercreek Market took home awards in the charcuterie category, for beef tongue pastrami and duck rillette, respectively. Red Rooster Coffee Roaster, based in Floyd, was honored for its Washed Hambela coffee. The 193 winners in 14 categories were chosen from 2,059 entries submitted by top-notch food producers from all over the U.S.