Cardamom Hill Spices Suburbia
With its American South meets Indian South cuisine, Cardamom Hill has created such a culinary splash that in only one year’s time the 58-seat fine-dining restaurant has garnered a national reputation for excellence—including being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation 2013 award for Best New Restaurant and making Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants list.
Owned and operated by Asha Gomez, the restaurant is named for the mountainous, spice-rich region of Kerala, India, which Gomez called home until she migrated to the U.S. when she was 16 years old.
“We decided to focus on one region in India because I felt that the American palate was extremely refined,” says Gomez. “I didn’t need to dumb my food down, and as it turned out everyone seemed to love it.”
Since opening in January 2012, Cardamom Hill, which is located in Atlanta’s tony Berkeley Heights neighborhood, has earned the respect of the local community, including rave reviews for its signature fried chicken—a dish typically revered as the South’s pride and joy.
“There’s no doubt about it—our first year has been tremendous,” says Gomez. “It’s quite exciting because when we started I had no idea how to put out 150 plates of food.”
Gomez, who says she didn’t choose the restaurant industry, “It chose me,” grew up spending much of her day in the kitchen with her mother and three sisters, preparing regional dishes with Portuguese origins.
After graduating from Queens College in New York City, Gomez headed to Atlanta where she opened her first business venture—a luxury spa—in 2003. As a treat, Gomez prepared dishes from her childhood for regular clientele, who began to come as much for the food as for the spa treatments.
After the economic recession, business dropped by 60 percent and Gomez was forced to close the spa in 2008. But customers missed her food so she started The Spice Route Supper Club, where she served five-course meals in her home for $150 per person.
The supper club operated for a couple of years, earning critical acclaim at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, and then it became clear to Gomez that the time had come to open her own restaurant.
“I wanted people to discover Indian regional cuisine,” says Gomez. “Southern Indian cuisine is very different from Northern Indian. We don’t eat naan, but rather steamed rice cakes.”
Cardamom Hill, which is open for lunch and dinner, caters to a clientele which is roughly 80 percent American and 20 percent Indian. “I love that I have brought forth an ethnic cuisine in a fine-dining atmosphere,” she says.
The restaurant’s food features innovative dishes that marry elements from the American South with the Indian South. Its award-winning specialty, Kerala-Style Fried Chicken, is a case in point. The entrée, which sells for $19, features fried chicken served over rice and vegetable pilau, finished with a drizzle of coconut oil and spicy mango sauce spiked with chili and garlic.
As a firm believer in supporting the local community, Gomez buys local, fresh ingredients. “It’s a no brainer,” she says. “I don’t need to pump my chest about it. It just makes sense to have that intertwining with the community.”
Other popular dishes include Shrimp and Grits, which combines spicy Kerala curried shrimp over kitcheri-style grits of organic stone-ground corn meal and lentils, finished with leeks, ginger, and roasted peppers, and Pork Vindaloo, a slow-cooked pork shoulder in a vinegar-tinged sauce served with a rice-coconut crepe known as appam.
Before opening Cardamom Hill, Gomez recruited Omar Powell as chef de cuisine, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who had worked with Daniel Boulud at his signature New York City restaurant, Daniel; Gabriel Kreuther at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton New York; and Anne Quatrano at Atlanta’s Bacchanalia.
“I wouldn’t have opened the restaurant without Omar,” says Gomez. “He has known my food for over a decade and he knew the in’s and out’s of running a commercial kitchen. He took my food and executed it to perfection.”
With check averages of $13 to $20 at lunch, and $50 to $75 at dinner, Cardamom Hill doesn’t take parties larger than 14 and, more often than not, turns the tables at least once.
Closed on Sundays, Cardamom Hill employs about 22 people and sometimes requires up to 75 hours a week of Gomez’s time.
“It requires long hours to be a chef,” she says. “It is an overworked, under-paid profession. You have to really love what you do, and I am very lucky because my kitchen crew also loves it.”