Art Of The Meal: Cardamom Hill
1700 Northside Drive NW, Atlanta
404.549.7012 or www.cardamomhill.net
Hours: Lunch, Mondays-Fridays; dinner Mondays-Saturdays.
Parking: Plentiful in attached lot.
Dress Code: Worldly and sophisticated, but casual.
America isn’t the only place where people are stirring up a melting pot. The coastal Indian state of Kerala is among that country’s most cosmopolitan areas, its traditions shaped by Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Jewish influences. Advertising itself as “India’s most advanced society,” Kerala boasts its nation’s highest levels of literacy, life expectancy and quality of life. A steady stream of globetrotting tourists adds to its urbane character.
OK, I see you there, impatiently tapping your foot, waiting for the food descriptions. But it’s helpful to know all this before you enter Cardamom Hill, a pretty, peaceful little spot, smack in the middle of a small shopping center, just off Atlanta’s booming West Midtown food scene. If you’ve only experienced Indian food in modest environments or from interchangeable buffets, you’re in for a treat.
Cardamom Hill is a tribute to chef/owner Asha Gomez’s homeland (her last name reflects another Kerala influence – Portugal). Kerala’s sophistication shines in her decor and tableware, as well as the layers of full-flavored spices that impart complexity without searing heat. The state’s geography and multi-ethnic traditions appear in menu selections like shrimp molee and fish roasted in banana leaves, and a meat-lover’s paradise of pork, short ribs, duck and goat.
Once owner/operator of an Ayurvedic spa, Gomez imbues her restaurant with an almost Zen-like serenity – a nifty trick in a Northside Drive strip mall. The aromatherapy begins when you open the door. (Or as a friend told the hostess, “You could charge people just to let them smell in here!”) The space is cleverly divided into intimate areas, so it never gets loud or feels less than warm. The crowd ranges from lots of stylishly dressed young people and Tech students to older folks chasing the latest taste sensation.
Enjoy the beautiful carved wood panels and quiet music, and take your time. Begin with a specialty cocktail, like the Kerala Cooler, a pleasantly prickly mango-ginger sip fortified with Square One Botanical, with fresh nutmeg, star anise and a cinnamon stick. The cucumber-basil cocktail is lined with paper-thin cucumber slices, as pretty as stained glass, but the Pineapple Chili drink is the best-looking and most intriguing sweet-hot drink I’ve sampled in some time: Square One vodka with frothy fresh pineapple juice, chili syrup, rhubarb bitters and a green chili perched on the side of a cocktail glass. (“You can rub the chili on the lip of the glass if you want more heat,” we were told.)
Now that you’ve been properly introduced to Cardamom Hill’s flavor profile, dive into a beautifully composed fruit salad, which changes daily (as does the rice that accompanies many dishes). Some appetizers need a bit of tweaking – the duck and plantain croquettes with tea-stewed figs were interesting, but dense and one-dimensional compared to the elegant entrees. Sauteed squid showed off the kitchen’s deft hand with spices, but the heavy plantain hunks added little. And while I loved Gomez’s Southern tribute to fried green tomatoes, the herbaceous, vinegary coleslaw that accompanied them was more memorable.
Kerala-style fried chicken, meanwhile, is no tribute – it’s Cardamom Hill’s signature dish, and a traditional one. But you’d be thrilled to find it at a Wednesday night church supper. Boneless chicken thighs, deep-fried and mounded over vegetable pilau, are so dangerously good you’ll want to eat every bite. (Warning: Portions are huge. Take some home.)
My favorite dishes, however, illustrate intricate spices that titillate rather than burn. Many entrees, like the monument-sized and fork-tender short rib, are so redolent of spices and/or coconut milk or oil that you can’t resist putting your nose into the plate as soon as it’s set before you. But that just begins the scavenger hunt for …. what? Cinnamon? Cardamom? Ginger? Fresh thyme? Garam masala? Coriander seed? It’s all there, in kaleidoscopic combinations – in roasted pomfret, a pleasant white fish in a masala paste, or in a dark and complicated fish curry (made with kodam-puli, a Kerala ingredient). The entrees’ side dishes are just as interesting – light, fluffy rice with crisp vegetables and fragrant cilantro, the fish curry’s thoran (coconut-flecked stir-fry), the pomfret’s cardamom plantains, or the short rib’s polenta-like upma.
The mango bread pudding is a satisfying dessert if you need one, but be sure not to miss the sweet, spicy and creamy chai tea, served with biscotti.
Grab a spoon, and dip it in India’s melting pot.