It might be easy at first to doubt the authenticity of the cooking at Cardamom Hill, Atlanta's first regional Indian fine-dining restaurant. In what other South Asian place have we seen such precise knife skills, or exquisite sense of composition, or range of colors? And who thinks of sliced beets with spiced yogurt, marinated boneless chicken thighs fried in lacy batter, duck and plantain croquettes with figs and cinnamon, or colorful salads topped with tropical fruit as part of the Indian culinary lexicon?
"This is the way we ate every day when I was growing up," owner and chef Asha Gomez says. She was raised as a meat-eating Roman Catholic in Kerala, the spice-rich southwestern edge of India once known as the Malabar Coast, where Portuguese, Dutch, and English traders left their cultural imprints.
When she ran Westside’s Neem Tree Spa, she would give customers extra incentive to return by preparing them meals of Keralite specialties after their treatments. The economy forced her to close the spa in 2008. Two years later she launched Spice Route Supper Club in her home, where she prepared beef curry, vegetables stir-fried with coconut and mustard seeds, and other little-known dishes from her native region for intrepid guests.
And in much the same way that she translated Kerala’s ayurvedic healing practices into modern spa therapies, at Cardamom Hill she now presents the traditional flavors of Kerala in a contemporary context, using popular cuts of meat, a mix of Indian and Western produce, and fine china for service.
For those who associate Indian food with cheap buffets, oppressive rooms, or awkward service, Gomez’s version of an Indian restaurant is a quiet revolution, without any counterpart in the South. She makes effective use of high production values, including an ambitious beverage program and a calming decor composed of several distinct spaces partitioned by carved wood panels against a cream-colored background.
Foodies materialized at the restaurant soon after Cardamom Hill opened in January. But Gomez was surprised by the number of Indians (representing 30 percent of her business, she estimates) who also walk through her door. The restaurant passes muster with demanding customers, South Asians or not, because the cuisine stays true to its source.
Take the fried chicken, by far Cardamom Hill’s most popular dish. "This is my mother’s recipe," Gomez told me, though she wouldn’t disclose the ingredients. All I know is that it is brined one day, marinated the next, and that pure coconut oil contributes to its unique aroma. I love its delicate crispness, giving way to a rich, meaty flavor. I find the slick, buttery rice underneath too heavy, although it is the traditional accompaniment in Kerala.
The restaurant’s namesake spice plays a pivotal role in the cooking. Beef biryani for two, a dish comparable to paella, finds tender nuggets of boneless meat buried in fragrant basmati rice studded with fat cashews and both green and black cardamom. Crush one of the greenish pods between your teeth and you will be under the spell of this singular ingredient indigenous to Kerala. Usually hard to pinpoint in a curry, its taste flutters around the mouth—a cooling, slightly resinous flavor that lingers like a perfume.
Many other dishes rely on tingling fresh curry leaves (no relation to curry powder), mustard seeds, and coconut oil—the holy trinity of Keralite cooking. Cardamom Hill is the rare Indian restaurant where vegetarian, meat, and seafood dishes are equally riveting. A lush salad made of young arugula with papaya, blood orange, and pomegranate; plates of roast duck in clove and black pepper sauce; and shrimp gently stewed in coconut milk with green chiles show equal, exquisite care. Cardamom Hill’s soupy fish fillet curry, made with smoked tamarind called kodampuli, is probably my least favorite thing on the menu, but only because I prefer the dishes with more sharply defined forms.
I am especially impressed with the vindaloo. Unlike many versions of the traditional stew (inherited from the Portuguese) that use potatoes as a filler and drown the meat in sauce, this elegant interpretation uses nothing but tender morsels of pork shoulder, lightly glazed with a vermilion vinegar sauce and tinged with ground red chiles. It is served with a Kerala appam, a small, thin coconut and rice batter pancake. Its delicate fermented taste and lovely crisp perimeter are typical of dishes prepared in a chatti, India’s answer to the wok.
The difference between dinner and lunch is one of the best things about Cardamom Hill. Many of the dishes that appear on the evening menu are previewed in the rotating selection of simple, elegant midday thalis—platters that include a main dish, a fruit-forward salad, a rice pilau, and a dal with components such as black-eyed peas, black chickpeas, red kidney beans, or a compelling mix of spinach and Indian winter melon cooked with soft green lentils.
At night the place fills up with couples and adventurous groups looking for goat chop lollipops on fresh mint, cilantro, and green chile sauce; braised short ribs over a polentalike dish of spiced semolina called upma; and the biryanis that come with raita (yogurt, cucumber, and fresh mint), pappadam (fried crisps made of lentil flour), and spicy, chewy, homemade lemon and carrot pickles.
I’m not always a fan of Indian sweets, but I am a sucker for Cardamom Hill’s soupy dessert called payasam, made by boiling rice noodles and spices in milk. I find it more exotic and convincing than the bread pudding plated over mango sauce and sometimes capped with a tuile cookie. The sumptuous, heady chai—served with a snack similar to biscotti called a tea rusk—is often all I need at the end of a rich meal.
Service, frequently a sore point in Indian restaurants, struck a professional tone from the get-go. Brian Stanger (previously at Abattoir and Top Flr), rules over a small, dapper bar equipped with a wall-length wine refrigerator. Rum-based drinks taste especially compatible with the menu’s many permutations of coconut. The chai tai—Stanger’s riff on a mai tai made with Blackwell Jamaican rum, Cointreau, lime juice, chai syrup, and bitters—is one of the stars on the short list of drinks, which are all attuned to the mood of the restaurant. The equally brief wine list homes in on a couple of dozen lively, offbeat bottles (such as a tart white Kerner from Germany and a light-bodied red Minvervois from France) that don’t whop the palate with big flavors, which can clash with spicy foods.
Competent though they may be, none of the staff can match the owner’s bubbly personality and easy manners. Gomez’s concerns for beauty and wellness fuel Cardamom Hill’s success, and her exacting aesthetic—the tranquility of the atmosphere, the freshness of the ingredients—permeates every aspect of the restaurant. I only wish she would spend more time in the dining room so her bustling, smiling presence could cap off the experience. —Christiane Lauterbach
RATING ** (very good)
1700 Northside Drive
HOURS Dinner Monday–Thursday 5:30–9:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5:30–10 p.m. Lunch Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Photograph by Greg DuPree. This review originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.