First Look: Spice to Table
Chef Asha Gomez sets up shop in Old Fourth WardWednesday October 1, 2014 04:00 am EDT
In 2011, after a year of hosting her immensely popular Spice Route Supper Club and sharing her passion for regional Indian cuisine with Atlanta, Asha Gomez decided to make the leap to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Cardamom Hill was born. The restaurant quickly garnered a cult fan base, an appreciation from critics (including ours), and a nod from the James Beard Foundation, but the menu's fine dining price point was too much for some.
Before shuttering earlier this year, Cardamom Hill was unlike any other restaurant in Atlanta. It portrayed an often-unexplored dimension of Indian food, with many of its dishes inspired by the meat-centric cuisine of Gomez's native Kerala. Was Atlanta ready for Indian fine dining? Maybe not. But that hasn't stopped Gomez from pushing forward. Through her newest venture, the Indian-inspired bakery/cafe Spice to Table, Gomez once again invites guests to expand their knowledge of Indian food (an ancient, geographically vast, and incredibly diverse cuisine) beyond buffet tikka masala. But this go-round, she's serving it up on vintage-looking enamelware instead of fine china.
Gomez is a pro at making folks feel welcome. Spice to Table's loftlike Studioplex space is streaming with sunlight and decked out with rustic and industrial decor such as farm tables and vintage china. Ever the hospitable hostess, Gomez herself is often behind the counter, there to greet guests with a warm smile and explain the more exotic menu offerings to newcomers.
The two-month-old cafe originally began as a breakfast-and-lunch venture. But despite the lure of spicy mango tarts and goat crostatas, there was a tiny hitch: most average workday Atlantans couldn't make it before closing hours. "Our regular clients just didn't have an opportunity to eat the food," Gomez says. So, in mid-September, the crew reconfigured the hours and the menu, nixing breakfast and adding an early dinner service.
Whereas the lunchtime offerings change every day, a midday visit will almost always yield a few varieties of kati roll, or Indian flatbread, roasted and spiced vegetables, and baked samosa pockets (as long as they haven't sold out, which they seem to do rather quickly). Gomez's beloved chai tea, available hot or iced, is always available.
For the small but exquisite-looking selection of sweets tucked inside the display case at the counter, Gomez enlisted the help of pastry chef Lori Horne, who has incorporated such ingredients as black pepper and sweet mango into the cafe's desserts. The seven-spiced carrot cake, a recipe from Gomez's mother, is a pastry case staple and Gomez's favorite item on the menu. Other sweets in the rotation include mango bread pudding, chile chocolate cake, and mango upside-down cake.
As for the brand-new dinner service, we'll see what the future has in store — but, in addition to the kati rolls and spiced veggies, Gomez plans to offer "more constructed" plates that recall the flavors of her previous restaurant in the form of menu items like biryani and Gomez's signature Kerala Railways beef curry. "We're repackaging the flavors of Cardamom Hill, but without the restrictions of fine dining," she says. Suggesting, of course, that Cardamom Hill superfans may not be completely out of luck after all (except when it comes to that infamous crack chicken — they'll have to walk an extra block to Gomez's Krog Street Market stall for that). Will Spice to Table ever expand beyond the early-bird hours? "No," Gomez states emphatically, adding that she plans to keep Spice to Table the casual, accessible neighborhood eatery it was meant to be.
When it comes to redefining our understanding of a nation's cuisine, Gomez hasn't let Cardamom Hill's closing slow her down. Rather, Spice to Table gives her a place where most of us can actually experience it for ourselves. The soul that brought Cardamom Hill to life is clearly still kicking at Spice to Table — but by taking the form of $8 flatbreads instead of $30 curries, the experience is a bit easier to swallow this time around.