Duck and Plantain Croquettes, Served with dried figs stewed in black tea, dried red chillies, cinnamon bark, and cumin ($9)
The day I called Cardamom Hill to make reservations, the man on the other end sounded like he was doing me a favor.
“Let me see. I think we’re booked the entire day,” he said. “Ok, here is what we can do. Come at 6:30. There may be a small wait, but either way, we’ll accommodate you somehow.”
I remarked how Bill Addison’s review in Atlanta magazine and Kessler’s review in the AJC must be setting the place on fire. The man added that the restaurant is now number four in the “Top Things to Do in Atlanta,” according to Airtran Go, and how they are now part of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. I think he listed off some other accolades. I lost track.
So when I showed up to Cardamom Hill, I was surprised to find that the restaurant was both in a shopping center and had a dining room that was half empty. Shopping center vibes are hard to shake for any establishment, but with enough dark-brown wood, Cardamom Hill does a fair enough job. I had a better question: where were the crowds? Why am I not waiting outside?
Those thoughts aside, the last time I encountered upscale Indian cuisine, I was in NYC. The meal made a profound statement on behalf of a cuisine that often suffers from either an all-you-can-eat option or a slew of greasy, undistinguishable dishes with undistinguishable seasonings. Cardamom Hill is upscale AND Indian? Let’s go.
The most popular dish on the menu: Kerala-Style Fried Chicken ($16) with a mango sauce
The chef behind Cardamom Hill is Asha Gomez, a native of Kerala, India. Our server did a wonderful rendition of the website’s biography of Gomez in which you hear about her Portugese roots and the city’s love for tropical flavors. And believe me, he isn’t kidding about the tropical flavors. Slices of tangerine (I think) accompanied fried donut plantains that, while delicious, fell short of their price tag. A dried fig sits atop three gorgeous duck and plantain croquettes. An obscure mango sauce covers their version of fried chicken. The rice served with their spicy fish curry is flecked with coconut.
It is at this point I stop short of slamming the gavel and making a ruling. I’ve never been to Kerala and at the risk of sounding ignorant, I hadn’t heard of the place until I sat down and met our server. The cuisine here is different than what I’m accustomed to and the emphasis on tropical, bright and often subtle flavors goes against my experience with the bold, pugnacious styles from other parts of India. On a visceral level, though, RJ and I left disappointed.
Spicy Fish Curry (19) -Seasonal fish fillet simmered in curry flavored with kodampulli, a special Kerala ingredient also known as Malabar smoked tamarind; served over rice with vegetable thoran( coconut-flecked stir fry).
Considering two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert and two drinks amounted to $100, we wanted a number of things. We wished that the fried plaintins were crunchier. The fried chicken, while wonderfully flaky, was unfamiliar especially with a bizarre mango sauce. More umami, I say. Less sweet. The spicy fish curry felt homey but only with the rice. Alone, the deep red broth fell flat. And for dessert? Of course the restaurant would combine more mango and a lot of cardamom in their bread pudding. Was it too much? Perhaps in the context of the entire meal, yes — this was far too tropical for my tastes.
I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something. Is it because I’ve only been the Cardamom Hill once and am not familiar with Kerala or its style? Maybe we ordered the wrong dishes or went on the wrong night or just need more time to get cozy with Gomez’s bright, tropical deliveries. At this point, I’m pleased that upscale Indian has finally come to Atlanta with a fresh take on a well-known cuisine, but moving forward I hope that future meals take bolder stances.
1700 Northside Drive Suite A-5
Atlanta, GA 30318