Don’t call it fusion.
Such is the plea from Cardamom Hill owner Asha Gomez to people who try and describe her restaurant, where she has prepared roasted duck, beef croquettes and fried chicken that she claims are very much in keeping with the fare in Kerala, the far-southern Indian state where she grew up.
I recently came back from a short trip to India to visit my daughter, who is spending the year there. Indeed, the one Keralite restaurant we visited reminded me in every way of Cardamom Hill — from the dining room layout (lots of snug spaces between carved wooden dividers), to the presentations (colorful compositions on porcelain plates) to the wide variety of meat and fish (including the only beef we encountered in India).
We visited so many different kinds of restaurants — some elegant and modern, some hip and boisterous, some experimental, and some flat-out grand. They all expanded my image of what an Indian restaurant can be.
Cardamom Hill is just one of several new restaurants that have upped the ante for Indian dining in Atlanta. Of the three below, I can wholeheartedly recommend two of them. The third and newest seems to need a little more time in the tandoor.
1. Cardamom Hill
If ever there’s a restaurant where you want to pass around bites and tastes, this is it. Our dishes kept in rotation around the table until everyone cried uncle. A special curry of head-on (but carapace-free) Georgia shrimp in a super-rich coconut curry sauce was the clear winner of the evening, thanks to snappy freshness of the shrimp. Bu railroad beef curry — a banana-leaf bundle holding gingery, spicy beef and cool yogurt rice — was a close second. The Kerala-style fried chicken, with its thick layering of spiced batter, is always fun for a bite or three, though I’m a little less enamored of this dish than its most ardent fans.
Our one disappointment was a gorgeously fragrant goat biryani. The rice was pabulum soft and had a kind of soppy texture that tampered my enthusiasm for the layers of flavor in it. Truth be told, the leftovers heated up in the microwave the next day were better.
The opening crowds have really died down, so you can get a table at this Asheville import without much of a wait. The bright colors, Bollywood movie posters, good smells coming from the kitchen, and energy bouncing off the cinder block walls all contribute toward a special atmosphere.
The menu lists a variety of Indian-accented sandwiches and wraps, salads and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian daily thalis. But the house specialty is chaat, the street snacks that are sold from vendors all over India. This is really where you’ll find the most satisfaction. The kale pakoras are a marvel of frying and kale flavor abatement, and the dish called SPDP, while it sounds like a disease acronym, is actually a craveworthy mouthful of potato, fried noodle and tangy chutney in puri puffs that crackle and pop. The corn bhel salad, above, is a new favorite for its corn-on-cornflake goodness.
A number of the chaat talk with a Southern accent, including everyone’s fave fried okra matchsticks. There are lots of beers and cocktails to be had, but all I ever want here is the nimbu pani — lime juice mixed with simple syrup, soda and a pinch of salt.
I want to like this clean, modern little spot more than I did on my initial visit. It would be great to have a go-to Indian restaurant in the heart of the city. But my first impression was of staid cooking dressed up in unfortunate finery. The julienned fried okra on this plate tastes pretty good, but the sad clump of rotting micro-greens on the side should never have come out of the fridge, and those swoops of tamarind and mint chutneys don’t add flavor as chutney should. (They also look a little like illustrations from a human biology textbook.)
The samosas we tried were dense and not terribly hot or seasoned, while the restaurant’s version of baingan bharta (eggplant curry) lacked any zip. Chicken tikka masala is the kind of crossover dish invented to appeal to British spice-averse palates, but the one served here is as bland as any I’ve had. The fresh naan is good, particularly if you get the “bullet nann” smeared with minced jalapeño and red onion. But I never felt that warm embrace of Indian spice, that permeating flavor of love.
The bunch of bros who work the room are a nice lot, if they’re a little too casual in the “let me just put these dirty dishes on your table for a second” way.
Maybe give it another shot?
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog