Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tiny Cardamom Hill opens with intriguing menu, ambitious cocktails

Posted By on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 3:42 PM

A man and his cocktail: Stangers Soursop Swizzle
  • A man and his cocktail: Stanger's Soursop Swizzle
Sorry, folks, but I won't be able to say much about the food at this much-anticipated new South Indian restaurant, which opens to the paying public tonight. Sadly, I was only able to sample a couple of the signature-dish small bites that were on offer at last night's media preview. But I can say I'm curious enough to want to return for a regular meal there, if only to see how such an odd little dining room works for dinner.

I was surprised to find Cardamom Hill located in a small, strip center storefront a couple doors down from the Little Azio at Northside Drive and I-75. To overcome this liability, owners Asha and Bobby Gomez had much of the dining area walled in with rustic wooden room dividers. As a result, the place has only 54 seats. Will that seem claustrophobic or cozy? Last night was not terribly representative, so I'm afraid I can't say.

As usual, I beat a path to the bar — not simply because drinks were free, but because the barkeep is the dapper Brian Stanger, who's mixed at Abattoir, Top Flr and, most recently, the new Bourbon Bar at the Intercontinental. He jumped at the chance to work at this tiny newcomer, he says, because he'd been itching to have carte blanche to run his own bar program, and because he hankered to use exotic fruits that would earn weird looks in most bars.

It's nice, if unusual, to see a full-service bar in a restaurant of this type, so I hope it's a success. I can't quite envision it as an after-work hangout, but much of its appeal will probably hinge on how well you hit it off with Stanger, who'll be the sole bartender, six days a week.

Last night's cocktail, unnamed as of this writing, was a milky concoction poured over ice and containing, in no particular order, Lillet blanc, house-made orgeat syrup, apricot brandy, cinnamon and Bitterman's Tiki Bitters on a base of Beefeater gin. The exotic fruit: soursop. It's basically a prickly Brazilian pawpaw and, yes, I had to ask. It was fruity in a subtle sort of way, not as sweet as it sounds and pretty tasty, if not quite my preferred flavor profile. But it went pretty fast, even though the less adventurous were opting for red wine. Stanger says he put it together a few hours before the event, but that it was likely to end up on the bar menu, which seems still to be a work in progress.

As for the food menu, you can download it here, but I'll tell you now that it's quite short. Appetizers include coconut chicken stew, goat chops, and beef and potato croquettes, the last of which I thought were fine but not exciting. Better was the Kerala-style fried chicken, both crispy and juicy. That was essentially the extent of my tasting, but it did whet my appetite to go back. Other entrees include roasted kingfish, braised short ribs in a coconut sauce, and their signature dish, goat biryani, which is described as a subcontinental version of paella. Except with goat.

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