Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cardamom Hill - Atlanta

Despite its bounty of spices, regional variety, and cross cultural interpretations, Indian food or the more readily available Anglicized version is rarely my first choice for a meal. Although an episode of Top Gear will occasionally put me in the mood for a chicken curry with plenty of Glaswegian gravy, I tend to stay farther east for my Asian cuisines. However, this is no denying the allure of a well fried piece of chicken and it is fried chicken that brought me to Cardamom Hill in the first few days of 2013.

As I understand the story, Chef Asha Gomez began the Spice Route Supper Club in 2010 which led to acclaim for her Kerala fried chicken at The Atlanta Food and Wine Festival and ultimately the opening of Cardamom Hill in early 2012. (For more in depth background stories, Kessler, Lauterbach, and Foodie Buddha are fine sources). But before focusing on the influence of coconut oil on Cardamom Hill’s most popular dish, there was the matter of pork vindaloo and bhajia.

First, the bhajia, a sweet potato and onion fritter with tamarind sauce and a fruit salad.
Not quite the loose bundle of fried rings onion bhaji that I was expecting, these bhajia dense, a bit doughy, and packed with onion flavor.
Complimented by the tart tamarind dipping sauce, the onion and sweet potato were well balanced.

When I do make it an Indian restaurant, vindaloo curry is one of my top choices but this was my first time seeing pork as the feature ingredient.
Taking a bite of this vinegar laced pork and appam, I quickly realized this was unlike any vindaloo I had ever encountered.
Each piece of pork was exceedingly tender and carried a complex vinegar flavor with a chili laced tail that lingered but didn’t overwhelm.
As for the appam, the edges were divinely thin and crunchy and the sweetness of the rice-coconut crepe meshed well with the vindaloo.

Appetizers done, the entrees began with the star of the show, the Kerala-style fried chicken.
Beneath the thick and delightfully crunchy skin was a silky and moist chicken that was packed with a host of spices and flavors.
There was a definite heat to the chicken’s spice but nothing that clouded the other flavors, but what I did find surprising was how similar the taste of the skin was to the bhajia from earlier in the meal.

Described as the spiciest entrée on the menu, the spicy fish curry was, per our waiter, a golden pomme frite simmered in curry flavored with kodampulli.
According to the menu, kodampulli is a Kerala ingredient that is also known as Malabar smoked tamarind; there was plenty of slightly sour tamarind flavor in this curry.
The trickiest part of this entrée was the mix your own approach, but one awkward pour later, I was treated to a pleasant combination of tamarind sourness and budding chili heat.
One highlight was the vegetal crunch of the rice and vegetable thoran, but I did find the fish edging towards overcooked.

While the spicy fish curry may have been the hottest entrée on the menu, the hottest dish was by far the spicy green beans.
Besides a toothsome texture, these green beans were joined by a caramelized onion sweetness that gave way to a genuine heat that had me draining my water glass.

Far from being an authority on Karalan cuisine, I can’t attest to Chef Gomez and Cardamom Hill’s authenticity but I could well wax poetic on the bounty of spice and flavor combinations that I encountered during this meal. However, more to the point, Cardamom Hill is miles from your average strip mall house of curry and is worth a meal if only to try their fried chicken and the pork vindaloo.

Cardamom Hill Address & Information
1700 Northside Drive, Atlanta, GA 30318 // 404-549-7012 // Cardamom Hill Website // Cardamom Hill Menu // Cardamom Hill Reservations
Cardamom Hill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 14, 2013

El Barrio - Birmingham

If there was one thing I brought back from the wedding in Lexington, aside from a greater appreciation for Kentucky’s fine spirit, it was a recommendation for a new Birmingham lunch spot. By some curious twist of fate, one of the first people I met at the cocktail hour was a newly minted doctor who now calls Birmingham home. After whole heartedly agreeing that Frank Stitt did not have a bad restaurant in his lineup, we got down to the brass tacks of where else in Birmingham was worth a visit. Her first suggestion was El Barrio, a new Mexican restaurant with lines out the door. Fortunately, it was little more than a month later, while driving from Atlanta to Jackson for the holidays, that I had a chance to try El Barrio for lunch. It was time to see if Martha Mae’s recommendations were worth their salt.

Though it may well be far from authentic to any regional Mexican cuisine, there is no escaping the allure of chips and queso or, in this case, queso fundido with roasted peppers and chorizo.
Per the description, this queso fundido included tequila, goat cheese, and chipotle, but what I found was a thin and watery dip that had the flavors of cheese for a foundation but not much else.
There were a few precious pieces of chorizo bobbing in the dip but hardly enough to justify the extra cost.
For dipping, the tortilla chips were crispy but lacking even a dusting of salt.

Wanting to try at least one dish from the taco section of the menu, the al pastor taco fit the bill nicely.
Exceedingly tender, the pork was dominated by caramelized pineapple. 
While all the flavors were augmented by a squeeze of fresh lime, this was a fair taco that left me wanting more from the chili-marinated pork.

Being mid December in the South, there was a break in the summer weather and a little winter chill was gripping the region. Knowing that braised dishes are always good in fighting against the cold, one order of beef “barbacoa” was soon at my table.
Although listed as boneless short ribs, chorizo, white beans, ancho, and citrus on the menu, there were a few more items at work in this bowl.
One thing that stuck out with this “barbacoa” was the contrast in texture. The boneless short ribs fell apart at the slightest touch while the greens provided a vegetal crunch to each bite.
Aside from chalky and undercooked beans, there was the issue of the braising liquid. Even though it was densely flavored, this dish seemed to be verging on a beef and vegetable soup. A piece of the jalapeno cornbread would have been an apt solution but that was left to the pork chili verde.

Three dishes down and I was having second thoughts about Martha Mae’s lunch recommendation. While there were some well crafted flavors at work with the short ribs of the barbacoa, the taco al postor failed to make an impression, the queso fundido was a watery mess, and it’s hard to forgive the chalky texture of poorly cooked white beans.  By and large, I left El Barrio unimpressed and wishing that I had driven the few extra blocks to Stitt’s Chez Fon Fon. Maybe Martha Mae’s next recommendation will strike gold.

El Barrio Address & Information
2211 Second Avenue North, Birmingham, Al 35203 // 205.868.3737 // El Barrio Website // El Barrio Menu
El Barrio on Urbanspoon