WEST CHESTER TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Mason resident Mike Dhillon has cooked at the base of the Himalayas, in jungles and at temporary camps all over India during his Army missions.
An avid traveler, he has eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants, cafes and street carts worldwide. That's how the fourth-generation decorated Indian Army officer cultivated an appreciation for fine dining.
So when it came time to open his own restaurant, Indian Spice Train in West Chester Township, Dhillon knew exactly what he wanted. It had to be sophisticated and upscale, with white tablecloths and napkins, and a name intended to evoke the romance of travel, adventure and ethnic food.
In the 18 months that it has been open, the restaurant has slowly built a loyal clientele through word of mouth. Building relationships, testing recipes and finalizing suppliers was hard that first year -- it was "one day at a time," Dhillon said -- but the second year has been more profitable.
All his recipes have ingredients he has tasted during his travels, he said. Dhillon is betting that by fusing his native cuisine with other international cuisines, with prices higher than the average Indian restaurant's, he will appeal to those with a sophisticated palate.
"I don't do buffets, because that's what most of the others are doing and because in buffets the food is simply not fresh or authentic," he said. "It's constantly reheated and the spices get watered down.
"I'm looking for food connoisseurs who order wines with their dinners, and I understand that most Indian immigrants who are very careful with their money won't come in, but I want to be the best at what I do. And that means no $9.99 buffets."
Dishes are freshly prepared using high-quality ingredients, he said. The lunch and dinner menus feature a wide variety of appetizers, meat and vegetarian entrees, breads, halal meats, vegan and gluten-free options.
While Indian restaurants typically hire multiple part-time cooks, Indian Spice Train has an executive chef who mentors the others. The chef is Dhillon's cousin, Rip Sidhu, who owns Bombay Brazier, another upscale Indian restaurant that has been open in Montgomery since 2000.
"For superior food, you must have a chef, and we don't want to take the cheap way out," Dhillon said.
He didn't always want to be a restaurateur
Dhillon playfully said that if he has one more good year, he will hire a manager, play golf and help wife Rosie, a stay-at-home mom, raise their three children: Angad, 11; Arjan, 10; and Amira, 5.
Becoming a restaurateur wasn't always his goal. Dhillon was born in Jammu and Kashmir, India, and moved all over the country as an army brat, finally settling in Chandigarh.
He graduated from Panjab University with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, but being a soldier was a family tradition. Dhillon's great-grandfather, grandfather and father all served in the British and Indian armies and fought in both World Wars.
Dhillon joined the country's Officer Training Academy after college, and after basic training, he was commissioned into the 11th Armoured Regiment. For his service, he won the Indian government's gallantry award.
Then the self-described "restless spirit" decided to move to Toronto, where his siblings Charanbir and Manpreet live. After obtaining a licensed law practitioner's diploma, Dhillon joined brother-in-law Bobby Sidhu at his company, Allied Legal Services, in Mississauga, where they worked on civil litigation and personal injury cases. Although he worked "30-hour weeks," he said, he was still bored.
On a visit to Cincinnati, he visited Sidhu's restaurant and became enamored with the idea of owning his own restaurant. That's how the Indian Spice Train was born.
Personal service is paramount
Seeking to create an ambience that would distinguish the eatery, Dhillon invested a lot of thought into the restaurant's decor, which includes red drapes, accented lighting, soft Indian music and framed prints of British Indian Army cavalry regiments.
Dhillon said that after assessing Indian restaurants, he realized the one thing they all lacked was personal service.
"Indians, just like many immigrants, fail to talk to their clients. They rarely make eye contact or small talk. I make it my mission to introduce myself to each table and talk to them and this way I find out what they like and what they look for in dining," Dhillon said.
Middletown resident Angela Seiler said her family is among the restaurant's loyal clientele. Seiler said she brings her family to the Indian Spice Train two or three times a week and has celebrated birthdays, graduations and wedding anniversaries there.
"It's an awesome, delightful restaurant, which has the best Indian food in town. Mike and Rosie do magical stuff to the food," she said.
She and her husband, George, don't order from the menu, though; they ask Mike Dhillon to make "something he would eat with his family."
"And each time it is just amazing," Seiler said.
Indian Spice Train
Where: 7165 Liberty Center Drive, West Chester Township
Information: 513-777-7800; http://www.indianspicetrain.com"