Remember when we understood Chinese food through dishes like chow mein and egg drop soup? We synthesized our understanding of an entire ancient culture and cuisine by way of cheap takeout.
That's approximately the same level of understanding most of us currently have regarding Indian food. We know there's a distinction between the north and south of India — something to do with sacred cows, right? We know about the breads and the chutneys. But mostly we view Indian food through the prism of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
But of course, India is huge — the seventh largest country in the world — with infinite regional cuisines, and a tradition of cooking and eating as complex and rich as the country's thousands of years of history. Chicken tikka masala and saag paneer don't begin to cover it.
In Atlanta, we have some decent Indian street food restaurants and a few regionally specific standouts. But unless you're a true culinary explorer, willing to drive long distances and tirelessly search the strip malls of our suburbs, chances are you haven't found those regional examples. And until now, there have been no attempts to give Indian food the fine-dining treatment.
Cardamom Hill, located in Berkeley Heights on Northside Drive just west of I-75, moves the goalposts significantly. Chef and owner Asha Gomez presents her native cuisine as upscale, refined, and specific to Kerala, the southwestern most state in India. Cardamom Hill is the restaurant version of Gomez's popular supper club, Spice Route, which earned her a loyal following in Atlanta over the past two years.
Gomez exudes a lush personal warmth, a sensuality and lavish hospitality that comes across in her cooking. (Full disclosure: I know her peripherally as a friend of a friend.) Texture and aroma play a huge part in the experience of this food, and a few of the dishes are plated with such an eye for visual pleasure that interrupting their arrangement might make you want to weep — the mango bread pudding dessert in particular, topped with a colorful mosaic of fruit and flowers, comes to mind. While Southern Indian food is generally thought of as being vegetable based, Kerala's long and convoluted history gives it a cuisine that has absorbed many cultures, most of them meat-eating. At Cardamom Hill, the meat is where it's at.
The pork vindaloo appetizer presents meat that's simultaneously airy and moist, crunchy and tender, like the best carnitas. The dish aims to show off the Portuguese influence on Kerala's food — the Portuguese ruled Kerala for much of the 16th century — and the pork is slow cooked in a vinegar sauce. The dish is topped with crunchy toasted coconut, and a bite of it is like a sucker punch of flavor, the meat, vinegar, and kick of spices both balanced and extreme.
That approach sets the stage for most of what's to come: dishes that sound familiar but exhibit more nuance and flavor than you might possibly imagine. Cardamom Hill's food is far more sophisticated than what you'd expect from a chef with zero restaurant background. But Gomez, being as much a businesswoman as anything, has brought in a highly experienced kitchen staff to help her translate the food to something that feels this refined.
Kerala roast duck comes with a sticky black pepper sauce that perfectly matches the musk of the bird's meat. On the side, what looks like cubed pumpkin or squash — which is exactly what many chefs would serve with duck — turns out to be mango. The fruit's brightness and acid give the dish a balance that takes it from satisfying to masterful. Shrimp molee presents a few fat shrimp in a mild green chili broth made silky with coconut milk. The broth is delicate and generous all at once, underpinned by the whisper of fresh herbs.
The vegetable plate was well thought out and had lovely touches, such as a stack of thinly sliced red beets served with yogurt and poppy seeds. But despite the fresh snap of veggies, and a cozy lentil stew with okra and eggplant, I found the plate less intriguing by far than the other entrées. I loved a spicy fish stew made with kingfish, but be warned: There are no concessions made for timid palates. This dish is both spicy and fishy, its thick texture imbued with a smoky ingredient called kodampuli that tastes like a cross between tamarind and good paprika.
But there are plenty of dishes that are friendlier to Western palates. The Kerala fried chicken is up there with our city's best. The hulking, tender braised short ribs in a roasted coconut sauce could pass for any upscale short ribs dish, except that it's bigger, butterier, better.
The restaurant's interior is slightly odd. In an attempt to create intimacy, the room has been partitioned into nooks, but the result is like a series of lavishly decorated office cubicles rather than the cozy romance I assume Gomez was aiming for. A bigger issue, and one that will soon be rectified, is the lack of a liquor license. This is particularly frustrating for two reasons — one is that Gomez has hired Brian Stanger, formerly of Beleza and Abattoir, to oversee the bar. The dude knows how to mix cocktails, particularly ones that are likely to go well with Gomez's complex, spicy food. The other frustration is simply that Indian restaurants rarely have beverage programs of note. I'd love to see what smart beer and wine pairings would do for this food. It's an evolution in the restaurant I'll be watching closely when the license comes in, which could be any day now.
But even without the booze, and even beyond its pioneer status as the purveyor of our city's first upscale Indian food, Cardamom Hill offers thoughtful, soulful, generous cooking, and adds to Atlanta's too small list of restaurants that feel intensely personal. Cardamom Hill is obviously a labor of love, and it's an emotion that comes through quite clearly on the plate.
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