Several months ago my wife and I went to India to visit our daughter, who was working as a schoolteacher in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras).
We ate some great destination-worthy meals. But we also stopped off at the little coffee shop near her apartment for sandwiches, breakfast pastries and grab-and-go snacks. With its foam-art lattes and free Wi-Fi, it was much like any similar business here.
But the menu was like someone had gone into an American coffee shop kitchen and zapped the ingredients with a spice gun. From the cheese pastries to the chicken sandwiches, the food bristled appealingly with hot peppers and fragrant spices. Even the scrambled egg breakfast wrap boasted “blingy Desi flavours.” In India, a little chili and cardamom can make anything taste better.
Asha Gomez’s new Inman Park restaurant, Spice to Table, strikes me as a much better version of this coffee shop. Puff pastry turnovers break open to a filling of steamy, hot curried beef. A high quiche in a flaky, fluted crust holds shreds of spicy braised goat within its custard. A three-layer carrot cake, all creamy frosting and moist crumbs, jolts you to attention when you find and bite into whole black peppercorns hidden within.
The food alternately soothes and surprises, a twist you learn to expect from this distinctive chef.
Gomez’s lamented previous effort, Cardamom Hill, which closed in July, looked like a fancy spa but served up an audacious and flavor-forward roster of recipes inspired by her home state of Kerala in South India.
You might have tried a straightaway Keralite fish curry one time, and then returned for a thick hunk of fried chicken over a raised waffle, every component from the chicken batter to the syrup so pumped with seasonings that you didn’t know which South it tasted more of, the American or the Indian. It was sad to see that restaurant fold.
Spice to Table serves a far more limited menu — just the few daily dishes that can be displayed, Souper Jenny style, behind the counter where you place your order and pick up your food.
You can count on a salad or two, a plate of the day’s roasted vegetables, those turnovers (which sell out quickly), and a daily selection of kati rolls, or Kolkata-style wraps served in a flaky paratha flatbread.
You can go for lunch, when the two small rooms fill quickly, or an early dinner. Gomez has discontinued breakfast after discovering that a lot of the artists and entrepreneurs in the Studioplex complex (where Spice to Table is located) don’t eat much before 10 a.m.
I very much liked the roasted vegetables I tried one day, an autumnal melange of squashes and roasted apple crusted in cardamom-scented tomato paste. A kati roll topped with a crisp potato croquette that you smoosh down into a red kidney bean curry before rolling the flatbread around it may be the tastiest all-carb sandwich in town. A tarragon chicken salad kati roll tasted startlingly spicy, which might come as a shock or (in our case) a delight. I was less fond of the pork vindaloo kati roll, which featured chunks of meat in a pasty, sweet and spicy gravy that reminded me of Crock-Pot barbecue.
But I always love the salads here. Gomez can dress raw kale and pecans in a sweet honey vinaigrette and make it taste fresh and appealing. She has a canny palate for primary flavors.
You’ll want to at least share one of the desserts that Gomez and pastry chef Lori Horne collaborate on. Amma’s Carrot Cake, a recipe from Gomez’s mother, serves as the signature item, and it is great, with those surprising peppercorns, cardamom and clove (and a restrained hand with sugar) directing your palate to appreciate the carrot’s natural tang and sweetness. But I almost like the mango bread pudding more, with its caramelized sugar crust and cuminy flavor of nigella seed sneaking into the occasional bite. What a nice pairing with a cup of milky chai.
With its rustic Indian furniture, steel blue walls and engineered concrete floor, Spice to Table sets a comfortable, chai-drinking mood. Gomez has scattered cookbooks around like props, perhaps as a subtle way to announce her own cookbook, which is in the works. Her other baby, Spice Road Chicken, is set to open in Krog Street Market in two or three months.
Cardamom Hill may be gone, but Asha Gomez remains very much a spicy presence in Atlanta.