Berkeley Park does not immediately make you think of good Indian food, or good food of any sort for that matter. With all due deference to its inhabitants, this part of the city seems a chain-choked no-man’s land stuck between the good restaurant hunting grounds of West Midtown and South Buckhead. So it may come a surprise to find Cardamom Hill in a little shopping center in Berkeley Park, which if you look at a map of Atlanta is sandwiched between Northside Drive and the neighborhood called Blandtown.
Then again, anything near the vibrant Cardamom Hill would be Blandtown in comparison.
With her first restaurant, owner-chef Asha Gomez has created a dining experience unlike any in the city. Gomez grew up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which lies along the Malabar coast. Like many Keralans, she was raised Catholic rather than Hindu or Muslim, so her table makes room for both beef and pork, as well as duck, goat, lamb, chicken and the bounteous seafood for which this regional cuisine is known. Her elegant sauces thrum with an intricate melody of sweet spices, hot spices and gobs of rich coconut. And her dishes come at the table as composed creations on glossy Bernardaud china.
Gomez, who previously ran the Neem Tree Spa in west Midtown, began her culinary career as a hostess renowned for resplendent dinner parties where she re-created the dishes learned from her mothers and aunts. I attended one for the birthday of a mutual friend several years ago — a buffet of a dozen or more heaped platters — and I recall a number of people exclaimed to her, “You should really open a restaurant!” She took her first step in that direction in late 2010, when she began the Spice Route Supper Club, a series of pay-to-attend dinners she hosted at her home and then, as the numbers grew, event spaces.
Knowing Gomez’s background tells you the right way to approach a meal here — in a larger group of folks who like to share. Her flavors are most interesting in concert, where they find their resonance. I should perhaps also warn inveterate Indian restaurant-goers (in case they haven’t already guessed) that Cardamom Hill isn’t the place for the kind of inexpensive and wickedly spicy South Indian fare served elsewhere around town. And though it offers good vegetarian options, omnivores will have a better time with this menu.
Pass around plates of Kerala-style fried chicken ($16) — crunchily fried boneless thighs that had marinated for a day in a panoply of Indian spices before hitting the hot oil — followed by slices of kingfish ($22, a mild mackerel) that had been rubbed with cardamom and black pepper before roasting in banana leaves. A melting-with-fat short rib ($24) enriched beyond belief in a toasted coconut and coriander curry makes the rounds next, and as your fork explores the plate it finds the beef resting on an uppma — a savory semolina cake seasoned with mustard seed, shallot and ginger. Are there raisins in there, too? Oh, yes.
As the flavors pile up, their lustiness compounds. This is sexy food, dinner as a serious booty call for the taste buds.
Though all of it tastes deeply spiced, nothing is what I’d think of as hot spicy, with the exception of a fantastic kingfish curry ($19) that gives a welcome sharpness to this rich meal. In the same vein, a tangy salad ($7) pits peppery arugula against bits of blood orange, papaya and other fruit in a brisk honey-lime dressing. It comes as an appetizer, but next time I’ll ask to have one with the main courses.
In fact, I may dial down the appetizer portion of the meal altogether. I’m fine with mild duck croquettes ($9) served with sweet stewed figs, and I’m fine with shrimp molee ($11) — a pale yellow curry you eat with the spongy, lace-edged rice crepe called appam. And I wholly enjoy the crisp, chile-zinged sweet potato fritters called bhajia ($7). But the meal for me really starts when squid thoran ($17), a dry curry made with grated fresh coconut, hits the table. That squid arrives heaped over fantastic rice, and — look! — here comes a star anise/clove-cured duck roast ($20) in a sauce that tastes like KC Barbecue blessed by Indian deities.
Cardamom Hill didn’t get its liquor license until after I reviewed it, so I can’t comment on the wine list, which is still a work in progress. I can tell you that this food just begs for a creative cocktail and a bit of action at that lonely bar by the front of the strangely laid-out dining room.
Gomez and company have set up a number of high, darkly stained wooden walls and dividers to break the room into more intimate nooks and corners. It feels, well, like a fancy spa. You half expect to walk around a corner and find a masseur telling you to take off your clothes and lie face down on the bed. But I did appreciate the semi-privacy one night when we were catching up with some old friends.
During the day, Gomez serves a variety of thalis, or lunch sets that come with a rice dish, a lentil dish and that fantastic salad. I didn’t love my vegetarian thali ($13), which featured a forgettable melange of chickpeas and spongy eggplant cubes. But my friend ordered the fried chicken and I played wandering fork throughout the meal.
Desserts aren’t the highlight of a meal here, though a generous fruit plate drizzled with cardamom-infused honey ($7) provided all I needed or wanted after a rich meal. Mango bread pudding ($9) might have a future in the NHL but needs work as a dessert.
Gomez says the bread pudding is one of her few outright innovations on the menu at Cardamom Hill, which otherwise hews closely to the dishes her mother cooked.
“Maybe I’ve refined some of it a little,” she said, “but this food is not fusion. These are the classic Kerala dishes I grew up with.”
Lucky girl.CARDAMOM HILL 1700 Northside Drive, Atlanta, 404-549-7012 Food: Elegant fare from Kerala, India Service: Very thoughtful and caring. Best dishes: Kerala-style fried chicken, fish curry, roasted whole fish, beef short rib Vegetarian selections: Yes Credit cards: All major cards Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Children: Not a good environment for small kids; I’d get a babysitter. Parking: In lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes.