January 6, 2012
First Bite: Cardamon Hill
Throw out your Indian restaurant cliches with this utterly refined and modern restaurant focused on the delicacies of Kerala
By Nancy Staab
Cult chef Asha Gomez has parlayed her Spice Route Supper Club popularity into a full-time eatery in Berkeley Heights (near Westside) with signature tastes like kingfish roasted in banana leaf, seasoned goat chops, aromatic rice and vegetarian dishes, and Gomez’s exotically spiced take on a Southern staple, Kerala fried chicken.
A darkened den, heavy incense, overbearing Indian music, tepid buffets of heavy-handed curries and tandoori chicken….Yeah, this is NOT the scene at Cardamon Hill, the new Indian restaurant that puts the REFINED back into the Indian restaurant concept—a concept that has been nearly lacking in the city of Atlanta…until now.
The lyrically-named Cardamon Hill is tucked in a small shopping mall at Northside Drive, but once you enter the space, all thoughts of malls and jarring highways are quickly banished. The polished interior is light and airy with elegant silk panels and beautiful pieces of carved rosewood for the décor. The music has a very soft, chill, Indian-lounge vibe. The space is intimate, seating 54 at full capacity. Wine glasses come in sophisticated shapes, courtesy of Reidel, and the stylish flatware and curvy, white serving dishes are alluringly modernistic and will have the design snobs salivating. There is no heavy incense, although we do think the addition of flickering votives might add to the night scene, and the menu is a tantalizing mix of Southern Indian dishes from chef Asha Gomez’s native Kerala and dishes inspired from other parts of India and from the global nomads, who have trekked through Kerala over many centuries.
Lush, coastal Kerala was a key spot on the spice trade route—its black pepper, cinnamon, curry leaf, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger, and of course, cardamon—coveted by ancient Greek and Romans and later Chinese, Portuguese (Italian explorer Christopher Columbus missed the mark, but the Portuguese Vasco da Gamma put Kerala on the map), Arabs, Dutch and other Europeans. In return, these various cultures left their imprint on Kerala cuisine. Asian-like stir fries, saffron from Persian cultures, and more European-influenced duck and beef dishes made their way into this melting pot cuisine.
LuxeCrush sampled some dishes during a recent pre-opening dinner at Cardamon Hill, and we are very excited to return in the near future to taste more offerings, such as the goat “lollipops;” coconut vegetable stew; pork vindaloo; and roasted kingfish rubbed with masala paste, wrapped in banana leaf, and served with plantains. On the menu the night of our visit: a disarmingly simple amuse bouche of mango cubes with fresh black pepper and micro-greens served on the most fetchingly modernistic, bent-handle spoons. The purest black pepper (very unlike the pallid supermarket versions) left a lingering heat long after the amuse was consumed. And it’s key to note here that spices are not heavy-handed at Cardamon Hills, but rather very subtly and magically used, and in many cases, complexly layered.
Fresh seafood, tropical fruit and coconut are also staples of Kerala and, in turn, Gomez’s cuisine. Not surprisingly, up next was a bright, citrusy salad of spiced grilled shrimp, star fruit and mango in a honey and lime dressing. As this dish demonstrates, you can dine extremely lightly and healthfully at Cardamon if you wish, and vegetarian options are always on the menu. Whatever the case, dishes are daintily proportioned, rather than dense and ungainly. Take the beef and potato croquettes appetizer: it’s on the heavier side of Gomez’s menu, but neither too dense nor the least bit greasy. These crispy bites, seasoned with ginger, garlic and mild chiles, would be the perfect snacks to pop at the front-of-the-house bar, which is helmed by master mixologist Brian Stanger. (More on him and the cocktail program later).
Things got much more heated with the fish curry entree: seasonal fillets simmered in a special curry flavored with a Kerala-inflected spice known as Malabar smoked tamarind. This dish lingered perfectly on the border of being exhilaratingly, without blisteringly, spicy. Cool things down with the perfect side accompaniment to this dish: an Asian-like “thoran” or stir-fry of tender, skinny green beans flecked with mustard seeds. Gomez’s signature Kerala fried chicken was also pleasantly spicy (it was a runaway hit at last year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival), but we really fell for the aromatic, slightly sweet-scented Beef Biryani-- “a classic dish evoking Kerala’s connections to Arab traders,” according to the menu. Think: slow-braised beef that simmers for at least three hours and is spiced with cilantro, mint, chiles, cinnamon and star anise. These melting chunks of beef are then served with a mildly-spiced, aromatic rice flavored with saffron, cumin, dried fruits, nuts and coconut flakes. The dish has a comfort food appeal and a faintly vanilla-sweet flavor, which I guess is appropriate, given that the owners characterize this standard dish as “the apple pie of the Arab world” –not for its flavors but for its ubiquity.
Wonderful wines and polite, unobtrusive service were just as refined as Cardamon Hill's décor and food. The owner’s Bobby and Asha Gomez promise a more extensive drink menu once there liquor license is fully secured and they have snagged the mesmerizingly blue-eyed, star mixologist Brian Stanger for their drink program. Stanger come with quite the resume, having formerly worked at Beleza, Top Flr. and Abattoir. The Gomez’s refer to Stanger as an “alchemist” who is eager to incorporate the exotic Kerala spices and fruits into his seasonal drink program and pair his original cocktails with the flavor profiles of Gomez’s food. Stanger shared one of his proposed drink recipes: a seductive, not to sweet Soursop Swizzle, consisting of soursop (a giant apple fruit from Central and South America and the Caribbean), gin, Lillet Blanc, apricot brandy, cinnamon, lime juice, tiki bitters and house-made orgeat (an almond-orange flower syrup). Stanger’s liquid sleight-of-hand should lend this restaurant a nice bar, as well as lunch and dinner, crowd.
And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one more bewitching beverage on the menu: a heavenly Chai tea flavored with spices like ginger, nutmeg and clove. Go ahead and order dessert if you like—the rum cake with cardamom crème glaze was like a darling, doll-sized plum pudding—but whatever you do, don’t leave without sampling the tea. It’s served with a snowflake-like pizzelle on top (the traditional Italian wafer cookie and a nod to the Italian explorer Marco Polo). Yes, Marco Polo also wandered through the magical, aromatic lands of Kerala that Gomez so poetically evokes with her cooking at Cardamon Hill.
Cardamon Hill, 1700 Northside Drive NW, 404.549.7012, www.cardamonhill.net, serving lunch and dinner daily with exception of Sunday.
The dinner menu is seasonal and will change every couple of months. The lunch menu is more free-form, “whatever falls off the turnip truck that day,” says Asha, though there will always be a vegetarian option. She plans to blog about her daily lunch specials so stay tuned. And in the near future, Cardamon Hill will offer deliver lunch service via traditional Indian lunch pails or tiffins to the first 50 customers per day, within a five-mile radius.
mango, black pepper amuse bouche.
grilled shrimp salad with star fruit, mango and honey and lime dressing
beef and potato croquettes with ginger, garlic and mild chile
Fish curry with Malabar smoked tamarind and vegetabal thoran side dish
Rum cake with cardamon creme anglaise