During a conversation about his year-old Eastern Market Indian fusion restaurant, Midnight Temple co-owner Akash Sudhakara offered up a rather surprising estimate: About 75% of his customers have never tried Indian food.
People, you've been missing out. Few of the world's cuisines are as consistently deep, rich, and fragrant, and if you're going to get an education, then Midnight Temple isn't a bad place to start. Just as distinct culinary regions comprise the U.S., the tandoor-cooked meats that are a staple of northern India are a different game from the thick, coconut curry-based comfort dishes popular in the southern state of Kerala. Midnight Temple pulls from the nation's different regions while venturing deep into Indo-Chinese territory and blending flavors from across Asia and even Mexico.
Initially planned for a space on the north side of the Eastern Market, the pandemic forced the restaurant to take a different approach. From Thursday through Sunday, it and the Detroit City Distillery shut down a block that's then filled up with tables, chairs, and couches where diners can hang, eat, and listen to the blaring live music. Most of the cooking is done on a grill that Midnight Temple assembles on the sidewalk, and orders are placed and retrieved at a makeshift counter. A temporary bar at the other end of the block serves drinks.
While this isn't exactly the set up Sudhakara had in mind when he and his partners set out, it's a happy detour, and even after the restaurant opens its dining room in December, a curbside grill may continue to operate during the summer months.
The menu partly focuses on the chicken tikka, which anchors several dishes. Midnight Temple marinates the bird overnight in a deep, flavorful masala sauce that's driven by coriander, garam masala (a blend of about a dozen spices), curry leaves, and ghee (clarified butter), while yogurt provides the viscosity. Sudhakara describes it as possessing "mild to medium" heat, but while there are a lot of spices at work, it's not at all a fiery sauce. Convincing people that lots of spice doesn't necessarily equate more heat is one of Midnight Temple's challenges.
The chef keeps a huge tub of masala next to the grill, and in the straightforward chicken tikka bites, the nubs quickly absorb the sauce upon hitting the grill, leaving super tasty dry-on-the-outside-but-moist-on-the-inside bites.
My favorite application of the chicken was in the Hakka noodles, a fusion dish that's found across Asia with prints from Nepali, Indian, Chinese, and Singaporian cuisines, among others. In Midnight Temple's take, chicken tikka is added to thin noodles, while shreds of carrot and cabbage add crunch. Masala sauce is ladled onto and absorbed by the noodles, and the dish is finished on the grill with a healthy blast of sriracha. It can also be made with shrimp.
Masala hibachi rice is an Indian street food dish, and, though there seemed to be a heavier whiff of cumin in this one, it ultimately was good but perhaps the flattest of what I tried. In the "roll ups," butter chicken sauce is ladled onto chicken tikka and wrapped with coleslaw and cheese, or the veggie version is made with broccoli, carrots, and green beans. Both pop, and I strained while eating to try to figure out what kind of Indian flat bread Midnight Temple used, figuring it must be something obscure that I had never tasted. Nope: It's a flour tortilla purchased in Southwest Detroit, and it works well.
The crispy veg and chicken manchurian are two more Indo-Chinese plates, but prepared with a base of soy and teriyaki sauces, garam masala, and sriracha that drenches the deep-fried bird or a mix of baby corn and cauliflower. It's tossed with garlic and onion and is a balanced dish — sweet, salty, and spicy, and baby corn is an excellent meat substitute in this context.
Sudhakara accurately describes the pakora as "like onion fritters" with pepper, baby corn, and onion chopped up and deep-fried so it's left with thick crag that all should be dipped in a sweet-ish tamarind chutney, and Midnight Temple's samosas are a solid version of Indian fried savory pastries stuffed with curried potatoes and vegetables.
When the dining room opens, the restaurant will have its own full bar with drinks like a mango lassi with rum and Indian beers, and Sudhakara says to expect a busy but contemporary aesthetic.