At Cardamom, an Indian restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens, aromatic green pods of cardamom — one of the world’s most expensive spices, alongside saffron and vanilla — flavor everything from basmati rice to dessert. But for the chef Alwyn Gudhino, naming his restaurant was partly about phonetics. “Mom is the last three letters,” he said, spelling it out. “I miss my mom, so I said, ‘Let me use this name.’”
Mr. Gudhino, 41, is from Canacona, Goa, a city on the western coast of India known for palm-tree-lined beaches that are popular with tourists. Inspired by a family of cooks, including his mother, Mr. Gudhino enrolled in a two-year culinary program in Goa. He then worked as a cook in Saudi Arabia and aboard Norwegian Cruise Line ships before settling in New York City in 2009.
At Cardamom, which opened last year, Mr. Gudhino offers a sprawling menu of dishes from the subcontinent. Northern-style buttered curries sit adjacent to southern versions redolent with mustard seeds. The modern-day invention tikka masala is casually noted next to korma, a Mughlai legend. If you’re overwhelmed, the subsection of Indo-Portuguese dishes, though short, is a good place to start.
Goan cuisine can be characterized by the smack of vinegar in its spice pastes — the legacy of Portuguese colonists (chiles and tomatoes, those New World plunders, are used across the region). No dish demonstrates this better than vindaloo, a menacing red sauce with a merciless reputation. At Cardamom, the dish is sprightly without being torturous. Kashmiri chile powder imparts a smoky flavor and its lovely color, while coconut vinegar halts the heat.
There is an option to choose your protein for every curry on the menu — full-flavored lamb is well-suited for the vindaloo. For the fish curry, a staple of Goan home cooking, the choice is clear. Using a family recipe, Mr. Gudhino makes a spice paste and simmers it with tomatoes, onions and coconut milk. For me, firm pieces of mahi-mahi were the best pairing for the bright, almost fruity sauce.
In the xacuti, grated fresh coconut is browned with heady spices like star anise and clove, then cooked with coconut milk until the ingredients lose themselves to each other and become something entirely new (though I couldn’t shake the presence of fennel, a distinctive flavor that reminded me of the mukhwas, an after-dinner digestive aid, sitting on the counter). Mr. Gudhino’s xacuti is nuanced, with a long, savory finish.
Caldin is a lesser-known Goan dish, but it shouldn’t be. This turmeric-tinted coconut curry is frank in its sweetness. Plump shrimp or cuts of chicken would do well here, but I preferred cubes of milky paneer, which had a bouncy softness to match the creamy sauce.
Before opening Cardamom (which he owns with a financial partner, Vijay Patel), Mr. Gudhino worked at various Indian restaurants in Manhattan. He was the executive chef at Nirvana when this small storefront off Queens Boulevard became available.
Mr. Gudhino said he is out of practice cooking pork and beef (commonly eaten among the Roman Catholic communities of Goa), which is why he doesn’t offer either at Cardamom. But he is comfortable making a wide swath of regional South Asian dishes. It’s why the tandoori lamb chops, which arrive caked in a caramelized yogurt and tamarind marinade, are absolutely worth a try.
The Goan tandoori shrimp sound appealing, but I would go for the balchão instead. In Goa, balchão is a preserve for monsoon season when fish and other seafood are hard to come by. Typically, fried prawns are canned with a sauce of chiles and spices rounded out with vinegar and sugar. At the restaurant, shrimp are sautéed and buried underneath a spicy-sour-sweet paste.
Once you’ve figured out what to order, the server will ask for your desired level of spiciness for nearly every dish. It’s a gesture to fit in with the neighborhood, a microcosm of diversity, and to cater to the various levels of tolerance. But one too many spoonfuls of chile powder can throw any spice paste out of balance, so it helps to get a recommendation.
Though Mr. Gudhino would eventually like to add more Goan dishes to the menu, he is content for now. To him, the non-negotiables are vindaloo, fish curry and xacuti. “When you are born, these three things will be there,” he said. “When you die, these three things will be there.”
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