THE DISH: Cardamom
Cardamom//22 Naberezhnaya Makarova//Tel. 313 3899//Open noon till 11 p.m.//www.cardamom-bar.ru//Menu in English and Russian//Dinner for two with alcohol 1,565 rubles ($50)
Published: October 31, 2012 (Issue # 1733)
A passage to India
Cardamom, which opened at the beginning of the autumn at the foot of the Tuchkov Bridge on Vasilyevsky Island, is the latest arrival on the city’s small but unhurriedly growing Indian culinary scene.
Opened by Ravi Arora — known to many expats and Russians alike from his years managing eateries around town — and his partner, executive chef Sumit Gupta, Cardamom is a very welcome addition to the long-standing Indian restaurants Tandoor and Tandoori Nights that occupy neighboring premises on Voznesensky Prospekt, and to the younger Jai Hind on Ulitsa Ryleyeva.
That the restaurant is an authentic Indian establishment, and not a Russian counterfeit, is immediately apparent upon entering Cardamom. The heady aroma of spices, sweet incense and tantalizing dishes greets diners as soon as they begin to descend the few steps down into the restaurant from the street. Unlike many basement restaurants, however, Cardamom is not bereft of windows, but has enclosed its casements with traditional Indian latticework, ensuring the chaos and building work of the embankment and bridge are left securely outside.
Uneven whitewashed stone walls form a plain background, the perfect foil for the broad wooden chairs decorated with elaborate tasseled fabrics placed at all the tables, and for the occasional gold wall lamp. Large terracotta jugs adorn the deep windowsills, together with glass jars of dried pulses and chili peppers.
Large flat plates with artistic geometric designs add the perfect finishing touch to an interior that is simple, very pleasant, and surprisingly difficult to leave — especially after a hearty meal.
Cardamom bills itself as a bar and restaurant, and one room is certainly more akin to a watering-hole than a restaurant as such, with a brightly lit bar along one side of the room, and a flat-screen TV playing Bollywood and other Indian hits. To the left of the bar, the restaurants leads off into a labyrinth of smaller rooms with brightly colored floor and wall tiles, while to the right is the main room, off of which a private dining room for up to 12 people is tucked discreetly.
In case any doubts remain as to the restaurant’s authenticity, the fact that Cardamom is already frequented by visiting Indian passengers from cruise ships should be an irrefutable stamp of authenticity.
It is the food, however, that speaks louder than anything else here.
Hariyali chaat (240 rubles, $7.60), a mixed salad of tomato, red onion and deep-fried spinach with a generous sprinkling of fresh cilantro, was sinfully good. A pair of samosas with potato and vegetables (155 rubles, $5 for two), also more than met expectations.
For the many locals who remain suspicious of spice, Cardamom also offers an extensive menu of Russian classics such as Olivier salad, borsch and beef Stroganoff, as well as that British classic, fish ‘n’ chips.
More adventurous visitors are however advised to ignore these commonplace distractions in favor of the preciously rare Indian menu.
Punjabi chole (270 rubles, $8.50), a spicy, pleasingly bitter chickpea stew topped with fresh tomatoes and fresh red onion, was a hearty, filling hit. Tandoori chicken (330 rubles, $10.40), on the other hand, at first appeared to be a small portion, but was in fact another substantial and perfectly cooked dish, especially when complemented by pulao rice (140 rubles, $4.40) and paneer kulcha (110 rubles, $3.50), an Indian flatbread stuffed with cheese in which the paneer cheese was admittedly hard to detect.
As anyone familiar with the standards set by Ravi Arora at previous establishments would expect, the service at Cardamom is warm and impeccable. Another bonus is that prices are considerably cheaper here than at the city’s other Indian eateries, perhaps due to the less than perfect location, though it is only a quick trot over the Tuchkov Bridge from Sportivnaya metro station.
Even drinks — so often the key to a restaurant’s profitability — are reasonably priced at Cardamom, with half a liter of Bochkarev costing 130 rubles ($4). The business lunch (Russian dishes only for now) is another bargain at 180 rubles ($5.70) for soup, salad, a main course and tea.
With an irresistible combination of great, reasonably priced cuisine, excellent service and a program of events such as an Indian-themed party last weekend with traditional dancing, competitions and of course delicacies from the subcontinent, Cardamom deserves to do very well indeed.