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
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
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…
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.
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.
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?
Atlanta Foodies on Cardamom Hill
Cardamom Hill Address & Information