Cardamom Hill: Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves 20

Posted by Foodie Buddha on January 07, 2012

more short ribs at cardamom hill

I strolled into Asha Gomez’s fresh faced Cardamom Hill half expecting the second coming.  Tucked away in the Berkeley Heights section of Westside, Cardamom Hill is the full-service, fixed location manifestation of Spice Route Supper Club (Gomez’s previous endeavor).

It’s a cozy little Indian restaurant, somewhat out of place in a strip center; and, it comes backed by a whole heck of a lot of of word of mouth and media chatter love splooge.  Gomez, who serves as chef and owner, endeared herself so well to the many people who previously sampled her take on Indian food, that she is, so far as I know, the first to take a local supper club and turn it into a brick and mortar.  Mind you, this ain’t a new trick … just new to Atlanta, where we follow trends instead of set them.

Though I have yet to explore the writings of those who have already shared a note or two, I’ve caught the whiff of the adoration about this place.  So with that hurdle to live up to, I snuck into Cardamom Hill during its earliest days.  Shocked as you may be … there’s A LOT to be smoothed out before this place approaches anything worthy of the prescient praise that has been delivered on the digital paper that is the internet.

An Orgy of Pre-Existing Food Love

cardamom hill font face

Anytime anyone writes on Ms. Gomez, the reader is presented with the same basic formula: Gomez is a she, she’s the chef, her food is all about South India, Spice Route Supper Club ruled … .  Well, that is and is not necessarily the case.

The core of it is undoubtedly true.  That Gomez handles the food herself (bonus points) and that Spice Route was a critical and financial success are points that we need not debate.  However, the waters get murky before you can say vindaloo.

Gomez’s food isn’t all about South India no matter how I hear that most bullshit term of all culinary bullshit terms (authentic).  The food straddles a number of fences and Gomez clearly plays with traditional techniques  … so dress it up as fusion, global, international, or whatever … this ain’t straight forward South Indian.  That might sound harsh, but if anything, it’s a call to respect what Gomez is actually attempting.

Meanwhile, I’ve never so much as seen Gomez in the flesh (though apparently she walked behind me a couple of times) and I’ve never looked for her dossier.  My brief readings of her and chatters revolving around her have led me to believe that she has earned her reputation as a wonderfully warm, gregarious gastronome with a serious jonesing for her homeland.

So if one had to mathematically explain how Cardamom Hill came to be, it might look like this:  warm-hearted chef + a non-traditional approach + a hip way of feeding the fans + immensely happy patrons + internet hype = anticipation.

So What Makes Cardamom Hill

spicy fish curry at cardamom hill

While some of the facts are buried beneath sloppy journalism, possibly due to the mouth of the originating disseminator, one need not read any pamphlets to figure out the gist of Cardamom Hill.

I wouldn’t exactly call this Indian fine dining, but it ain’t far off from that.  Cardamom is the city’s most aristocratic option for Indian food.  The space (which seems to hold somewhere around 50 people depending on who you ask), is heavily partitioned creating a hyper-intimate sort of vibe.  Rest assured, there’s plenty of room to wiggle.

As there is no liquor license yet, one must wonder what a more lubed up crowd sounds like.  On that note, one Brian Stanger is tapped to handle liquor dispensing and a 120 deep wine list.  Stanger has been around a bunch, showing up at Abattoir, Top Flr, and a few other joints as well.

Meanwhile, the rosewood accented soft cream/beige walls touched by various Indian inspirations lend themselves to my initial proposition: it might seem hoity toity to some.  However, I think there are things beyond the décor more likely to invoke such a reaction.

Lots of the crap people push on you PR insists the space is reminiscent of “the ancient Tharavadu Heritage Homes in Kerala [region].”  Barf at the puffery.  My friends from Bangalore might suggest that isn’t the pretty picture Gomez would like it to be.  Bottom line – the space is quite nice, but the language suggests arrogance.  It would benefit Cardamom Hill if the soothing sights were allowed to speak for themselves.

The Conceptualization of the Food

If I absolutely had to draw a comparison, I would say that Cardamom Hill is the Indian equivalent of what Desta Ethiopian Kitchen is to its culinary baseline.  While the menu is still in development, it is clear to anyone with a cursory knowledge of South Indian fare that Gomez isn’t actually doing straight Indian food.

Too many dishes invoke too many twists and leaps beyond the Kerala region to apply that moniker.  I consider Cardamom Hill to be a Modern Indian establishment.  As of today, the menu is 13 items deep (not including desserts).  It promises to expand, though I see no reason it should.  Meat lovers, pescatarians, and veggie heads of all walks can find a thing or two to indulge upon.  I won’t jump if they add three to five more options, anything more seems unnecessary and counterproductive.

Still, much of it is set to change with frequency, so let’s just leave it at this for now.

Some Awkward Service

Beyond the three ladies I had in tow, the meal was ultimately defined by service issues and food that even at its best, stopped short of really wonderful.

The battalion of servers, who seemed as genuinely concerned for our experience as one could imagine, overdid things.  It started with the explanation of the cuisine.  It got to a point where the server was saying (albeit quite politely) that South Indian food was great and awesome and soo good for you and that Northern Indian food was inferior in every way.  This ain’t the presidential campaign … just tell us why you’re good.  Leave the other guy alone.

Beyond that, servers were systematic regardless of the needs of the patrons.  I’m sure someone wants their water glass filled ever minute on the minute … but we didn’t.  When asked if they could just leave the water jug on the table, we were told there weren’t extras.  So Ms. Gomez – please go spend the extra $50 bucks (or whatever it costs) so that you can simply leave a water pitcher if its requested.  Trust me – with the prices you charge – you can afford it.

The staff was awesome, and every bit deserving of a 20% tip they got – but in the grand scheme of things – these faux pas and missteps need to be addressed.  Having three different staff members each ask multiple times if they can clear x, y, or z wears on you – no matter how nice they seem to be.  Have your system, but don’t forget that some people don’t need constant fawning.  And oh yeah, if you got announce in every paper and news site that you’re open to the public on January 4th … you are not having a soft opening – so don’t say that table side.

Food That Makes You Go Mmmm And Hmmm…

beet pachadi at cardamom hill

The Indian food most Americans are privy to is heavily seasoned and full of spices.  After checking out half the menu at Cardamom, my guess is that Gomez’s more subtle working of the palette is an intentional decision.

The vegetable trio ($9 – which we had two off), offered one of the meal’s highlights. The beet pachadi was totally kick ass.  Pachadi is essentially yogurt with a bunch of stuff in it.  Here, Gomez flips that on its side by making the yogurt the accent.  The beets were perfectly roasted and on top was a delicate sea of Indian yogurt with hints of oil popped mustard seeds.  A deep dark purple delivery of pleasantness.  Though it didn’t make me stop drop and roll, it was plenty good.

I have no clue what verka is, but what showed up were julienned sweet potatoes dressed by a touch of roasted curry leaves.  A good bite that offered an al dente tater and subtle use of brown curry powder.  A loser? Nope, not by a long shot.  But this was really just a peripheral bite.

And as my fork got more explorative, the returns diminished greatly.  The seasonal thoran (grated vegetable mixture) seemed technically flawed by excessive use of coconut.  Perhaps this was intended, but it got a lukewarm response from all three women, included the Bangalorean.

The beef and potato croquettes ($7) speak of kheema, a North Indian type of mince meat.  Where as this stuffing might usually end up either alone or inside a samosa, Gomez’s finds its way into a fried crumb shell.  Inside, elements of ginger were strongly on display against a ground beef and potato foundation.  It kind of hinted at a European concoction more than anything.  Solid and not unreasonably priced … the restaurant will neither make or break itself on these suckers.

fish cakes at cardamom hill

The fish cakes were a complete waste.  They looked far better than they tasted and not a single element invoked any thought of India.  If I had closed my eyes, I would have sworn I was sitting in a mediocre Baltimore seafood shack.  Fishiness dominated despite my deeply focused attempt to find the Indian.

The meal drifted along and again we were presented four dishes that included a double up.  The vegetarian platter that found its way to the table was a perfect symphony of the best and the worst of our meal.  The vegetable plate of the day was a pretty but ultimately sad assembly of fried peas and sweet potatoes (didn’t we already see them once?).  The peas were totally misfired and left us crunching down harder than we should have had to.  It would have been a complete wash if not for the eggplant sambar (described simply as an eggplant stew) was a deft adaptation of tamarind that wrapped with the basmati rice.  The dish had no business costing $16, but the sambar sure was good.

Aside from the beets, the two best dishes were the twice ordered braised short rib and the spicy fish curry.  That fish curry ($19) was easily the best of its kind I’ve had in this city.  It was smoky, rich, offered a pervasive yet muted kick of heat, and played super awesome with my tongue.  My one criticism is that the fish itself seemed to dominate the overall tone and that coconut heavy thoran found on top of the rice was simply a repeat of the earlier.

braised short rib at cardamom hill

We also had two large braised short ribs over upma.  I took a bite and immediately thought of Empire State South or Miller Union.  That can’t be a good thing.  Aside from the twist invoked by the upman, the coconut flavor was as absent in the short rib as it was present in the thoran.  The rib itself was excellent, perhaps prepared via a sous vide.  It was soft and buttery – but again – why is it here in an Indian restaurant?

For as unconnected as the short rib was, the upma underneath might (along with the beet) define Gomez’s ability to shine.  A traditional breakfast dish, upma is made with semolina … which is a wheat for pastas and cereals and stuff.  Here, it took the form of a grit cake.  It didn’t evoke any direct reminder of Indian cuisine, instead blending in with the Southern US style of the short rib; but, knowing it was there shows that Gomez, when in her zone, knows how to play.  Did it ultimately satisfy? I guess.  But I want a $24 entrée to elicit a awesomeness.  This pleased no doubt, but I didn’t move around in my seat and get all giggity giggity about it either.

The meal wrapped with some fabulous chai tea.  A cardamom pizzelle on top, it warmed and comforted and will most certainly shin if you get yourself a little boozy during the regular meal.  That said, we got refills – so you might want to consider ordering this sucker as early in the meal as possible.  It hit all the right spots.

Cardamom Hill First Impressions

I can see people running out of here like they had just met Vishnu. It’s an understandable interpretation. Do I agree with that takeaway? Not at all.  My fear, on some level, is that most people won’t know enough about the cuisines origins to appreciate the subtleties of Gomez.

Beyond that, few of the critical commentators have dared to say anything that might not be considered 100% complimentary of Cardamom Hill and its origins.  But as with any thing in this world, this restaurant isn’t perched on a hill immune to the realities that sometimes – shit needs to be worked on.

Maybe this will just be a restaurant that’s great for Atlanta, and that’s all well and fine.  But let’s call a spade a spade and make mention of the fact that beyond the hype and fluff, there’s some in-progress food being served in a not quite up to snuff service environment.  Fix that, and then maybe we can discuss whether or not someone should have to shell out $50 for nothing more than an appetizer, and entrée and a cup of tea.  The price point dictates that Cardamom Hill be the elite eatery for those seeking Indian food … let’s walk before we run, shall we?

FOR THE FULL ALBUM, VISIT

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Atlanta Foodies on Cardamom Hill

Cardamom Hill Address & Information

1700 Northside Dr, Atlanta, GA 30318 · view map
404.549.7012 · · menu
Cuisine: Indian · Price Range: $$$

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  • Me

    What’s South Indian food?

  • hestic

    Soooo, you visited on, what, day one? And everything wasn’t perfect? Shocking.

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      That pretty much sums it up – but like i said, if we can run out and call it flawless, we have to be able to walk out and say it wasn’t too. The meal was good – but it wasn’t this transcendent experience and it was hella expensive.

  • MisterAtlanta

    Well, can’t say I really argue with any of this. But, Atlantans can be an emotional people and Atlantans love Asha. I had only heard of her before I went, but went with some people who knew her and thus, arrived at the restaurant to find her sitting in my seat. She’s a lovely woman. beautiful, charming, endearing, and I can see why people would want her to be successful. She could have served me dog food and I probably would have liked it. But she didn’t. Lunch was simple, quaint, and full of flavor. And that chai does kick some serious ass. Dinner sounds like more of an journey than lunch and so clearly I need to go. But keep in mind that Atlanta is not so much a food city, as it is a city of people who make food. Most of our favorite restaurants are dominated and made successful because of the people we love who are behind the food. We don’t have celebrity chefs here, we have friends who own restaurants and we support our friends. I’m sure the restaurant will get better but for a first week I was far from disappointed. If this is what Asha can do in week 1, I’m gonna go back around week 5 and plan to be blown away.

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      You are not the first (and apparently not the last) to spend some time commenting on Asha as a person.  My posts are not about the individuals beyond their persona in food.  I have written glowing reviews of people I’m not so sure I’m inclined to like, just as well as I’ve spoken firmly (some might say trashed) about those that I might find to be more amenable to my disposition.

      I’m here to write about the restaurant experience in whatever capacity that is possible.  I frankly don’t care about the personality of the people making my food, at least, not outside the scope of this blog.  Sure, I’d like to come across someone I like, but Asha’s “person” is not of a concern to me.  This is about the food and the experience.

      Using the term “better” very loooooooooooosely, I will say that I want better restaurants for our city.  I want better patrons, better chefs, better staff.  I want to be better as well.  I want to exchange information and knowledge.  This is the avenue I’ve chosen to make that happen.

      I was neither truly disappointed nor truly impressed with what I saw.  Elements of our evening touched both ends of the spectrum and I think what I wrote pretty much covers that.

      Thanks for reading and writing.
      Da Dude Known as Da Foodie Buddha

  • Hunnypuppy

    I would agree with a lot of what you’re saying regaridng:
    1. For the price, the service/act should been better
    2. Yes it’s hoity – but that’s the point of fine dining and that’s why the price point

    The food ws excellent – I wouldn’t call it Authentic but easily some of the BEST gourmet Indian food i’ve had (in 10 countires I’ve visited). Rasika in DC comes close.
    I love the way she has brought out the flavor in the food and possibly blended it with a southern twist (fried chicken, beef n ribs).

    As for her, I had the pleaasure of meeting her at my table and she was brilliant, no qualms in sharing with me how she made the food and asking for critical feedback (yes that’s the right forum – not behind her back but to her face).

    She has done a wonderful job getting a top notch cuisine to Atlanta, yes it’s work in progress and that’s how all Entrepreners start out, but I think you’re a little harsh in the 3 stars, maybe knock off a star but to give 3 was just being bitter and nit picking.

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      Thanks for the comments and for reading.  As a point, I’ve written a great deal on what authenticity actually means, and though it was a term I used to find solace in, it’s now something I think should be shelved in food discourse.  I usually use the word traditional in place of authenticity. Gomez is not trying to be traditional and I don’t think most people would think otherwise.

      Speaking to the idea of a chef’s voice:  It’s not for me to tell anyone how to be themselves.  I can say that I cannot imagine that Cardamom Hills was hoping to invoke thoughts of Miller Union and ESS … they did … and I explained why.  What Gomez chooses to do with that information isn’t up to me.

      I think I said exactly what I needed to regarding Gomez as a person.  These online forums are not judgement calls about the individuals involved.  I simply said that Gomez seems to have earned her reputation for being a very kind, warm, and talented person.

      I’m not sure if you were saying that you felt as if this was somehow a behind her back comment – but in the event you were, I’d like to present you with another perspective.  A) This isn’t behind anyone’s back – it’s in fact – the opposite.  It’s available and open for anyone to see.  There’s nothing hidden in that.  B) When people are asked by staff members what they felt of a meal, it strikes me more as a dance of tradition than the opportunity to really exchange any serious comments.  This writing was detailed, and though you may not like what was said – I do believe I write fairly, even if I don’t always have wonderful things to say.

      These types of comments are great, but they can also lead to really intense and extensive discussions.  As time is short for me right now, I’ll cut this.  This wasn’t about Asha or about making sweeping generalizations about every aspect of every detail of my encounter.  It was simply a recapitulation of a single experience.  I think the way I presented that information is consistent with that idea.

      I very much appreciate your time and your words, please feel free to comment away!!!

      Cheers,
      FB

      (ps: i’m not sure what you mean by me handing out 3 stars … I don’t hand out stars on First Impressions).

  • herb

    Don’t compare Cardamon Hill in any way to Rasika in DC!  We could only wish!  Rasika is more sophisticated than almost any restaurant in Atlanta. They serve some of the most sophisticated Indian food in the US.  We visited CH last night and it was a small step up from Bhojanic – average food, nice surroundings but not sophisticated Indian food or particularly great service

  • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

    Hey there,
    Thanks for your comment, up until you said something – I actually thought I knew what I was talking about.  Thanks for clarifying.

    Before I go, out of curiosity, what’s a “Banglorean” and why the quotations?

    As for the regional origins of the food – I guess you’re right … I mean Kerala is on the southwestern tip of India.  From now on, I will explain that it’s Southwestern Indian food and not South Indian food.

    Mad props for you nailing me on the Tharavadu Heritage Homes statement (even though I have serious doubts about your ability to comprehend what I was actually talking about).  I should never have quoted Cardamom Hill’s own twitter feed (see those underlined word in the sentence – that whole thing is called a link … click on it … stuff happens).

    Oh, and props again for taking a clear and coherent sentence suggesting that kheema was at all related to the filling of the croquettes.  Damn Asha doesn’t even know her own food – I’ll be sure to tell her to stop calling them croquettes.  Anyway, I will never again make the mistake of suggesting that there is any similarity between something from Southern India and something from Northern India.

    I’m also very glad to hear that the Christians have finally converted most, if not all, of the Hindus and Muslims in Kerala.  Maybe, they didn’t convert them but instead murdered them – because who cares about non-Christians in a country where Christianity is a minority.

    I’m immensely humbled by your words of wisdom.  I know go forth with wisdom and knowledge not previously available to me.

    CHEERS! Thanks for reading,
    Foodie Buddha

    • Chuck

      I have tasted Asha’s food, I would say that I like her food, but not in a traditional sense of Kerala food, she is too far away from that. The overall experience has been pretty poor for the cost.

      She knows how to present food and also understands the mix of spices to a decent level.Asha is just a smart/shrewd person who understands how to attract people and can be very arrogant. 

    • Wilson7248

      Foodie Buddha-

      I am as well another Keralite.  I was deeply offended by your critique, not because you didn’t like the food, but because you assume that all Indian food food should taste the same way.  India is a country with over 13 states, each with very distinct food.  Even within Kerala, the food is different depending on religion and region.  For instance , I grew up hearing my parents commenting on the people from south Kerala cooking their food “wrong”:)  It’s as if i went into an Italian restaurant and said their food sucks because they didn’t just serve spaghetti and meatballs.  The reason why Ms. Asha called what we call cutlets, “Croguettes”, is so people don’t expect a piece of meat when they order.  Keralites also use less spices in amount than other Indians, but more variety, for instance, instead of 10 teaspoons of coriander, we might use 4, but also add cumin, star anise, cardamom, etc etc etc.  Also, your comment on Kerala Christians murdering Hindus and Muslims?, based on what? Maybe you should check how many Christians are murdered in India, as well as how many Hindus and Muslims murder each other, or just stick to commenting on food…

  • vh1riotruck

    Hello mtvlagunacar!

    It’s ME!  Your cousin brother vh1riotruck from the murky
    backwaters of Kerala, India!  Aunt Rosa
    says hello and thanks for sending the Cheetos – everything she touches turns to
    orange!  

    It is so serendipitous to see
    you posting on my favorite Atlanta, GA USA food blog.  What a small world huh brother?  Anyways, as you know I am one of the premier party
    and wedding planners within the entire state of Kerala and I would like to
    impart some of my wisdom on cutlets to the masses as I have been wedding
    planning for about 2 years and 8 months now. 
    Cutlets are EVERYTHING when it comes to weddings (nay – life) in Kerala!  Doesn’t matter the wedding – Christian,
    Hindu, Muslim, Nuwaubian, or even Buddhist. 
    You know and I know what it boils down to is that weddings in Kerala
    MUST have cutlets otherwise the bride is running off with the groom’s barber –
    it’s as simple as that.  Cutlets have
    become such a hit that instead of throwing flowers at the bride and groom some
    families prefer to throw cutlets at them.  No really – it’s true.  When it comes to
    parties trust me on this, I almost ruined a party on one of the houseboats
    because I forgot the cutlets!  
    Booze –
    check.  
    Hash – check.  
    Hookers – check.  
    Cutlets….cutlets…cu…FUCK!!!  
    Good thing I had the sensibility and
    fortitude to have stashed four cutlets in my chuddies from the wedding I was
    coming from earlier. 

    Anyways, doooooooooooon’t listen
    to this Foodie Buddha – what does he know? 
    He has never had the pleasure of Aunt Rosa’s southern U.S. fried chicken
    straight from the gullies of Kochi, or has had the taste of her braised ribs
    from the villages of Karuvatta, or her New England clam cakes straight from the
    docks of Thiruvananthapuram.  Next time I
    visit you in the U.S. my brother, we shall fine dine and have cutlets and fried
    chicken at Cardamom Hill while we stare off in the distance and reminisce about
    the good old days in Kerala!  Hallelujah
    and praise Jesus Christ our saviour.  In the name of the
    father, son and holy spirit.  Amen.

    Yours truly,

    vh1riotruck

    PS – Aunt Maria has amoebic dysentery – she ate some bad cutlets.  Please kindly send some money.   

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      previous comment edited for formatting.

  • An American

    Even though I don’t share your opinion, I am thankful you shared your opinion.

  • http://mattfreedman.com/ matt freedman

    Maybe you shoulda put the “Cardamom Hill First Impressions” header at the top? A lot of people seem to think this is a straight-up review.

    I’m just sayin, is all.

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      Hi Matt –
      For the first three years of the blog, I basically did that in the
      header.  Another Atlanta blog started copying my format so i was forced
      to change how I title my review posts.First impression posts have always been dropped in their own category and they always include relevant information – aka how long they’ve been open, etc.. etc..To offset the change in the title, I have made sure to include the
      qualification in the tag line for the summary section of eat post.  Granted, I liked the old format better – but I don’t think there is anything unclear in this post (or any of my other posts for that matter) that would confuse the reader into thinking that I’m misrepresenting the situation.

  • Yek401

    I had a similar poor experience in that first week.  And after reading the glowing review from Cliff Bostock (he was recognized at the restaurant), I was glad this one was written to balance things out.

  • djm5x9

    You know, sometimes constructive observations go a long way to making a very good chef and their newly opened restaurant great.  It would be an injustice if everyone told chef she was great and she find out the truth when the building is shuttered . . .

  • Mariamma

    I enjoyed this honest write up but this Malayalee is cracking up over the commentary that the thoran had too much coconut and that tharavadus don’t make up part of the Kerala architecture. Your Bangalorean friend might have led you astray there.

    I was actually hoping you would have impressions of the Kerala Fried Chicken which I can assure you is not really part of traditional Kerala food, though Gomez keeps pushing this lore somehow.

    • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

      Hi Mariamma,
      I’m quite familiar with the foundation of Cardamom Hill’s cuisine though I would generally defer to a Malayalee.  Still, to say Thoran can’t have too much coconut seems disingenuous.  To elaborate, thoran with too much coconut is like pizza with too much cheese.  It’s a technical flaw.

      I am very sorry if you felt I was attacking Kerala culture with my comments about Tharavadus.  When I said “Barf at the puffery,” I was trying to say that Cardamom Hill was using lots of fluff words that don’t really mean anything, a reality not uncommon in restaurant PR.

      Take care,
      FB


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