Get the scoop on Tiffin's major competition
As restaurants go, there are a few absolutes in Philadelphia. L&I delays. Calamari salads at Starr outposts. But the truest rule is that you cannot open an Indian place in this town without it being compared to Tiffin.
Just nine short blocks away from the Indian Almighty's Girard Avenue digs, a new tandoor-to-door operation is drawing all the expected comparisons, but not for the expected reasons. Raju Bhattarai is the chef/owner of new kid on the block Ekta. He's also Tiffin's former executive chef.
Located on the east side of the El, Ekta makes Tiffin look like the Taj Mahal. Believe it. An upstairs dining room is in the works, but currently there are just two tables, pushed against one wall and covered in flower-print and blue-checked plastic picnic blankets. Unforgiving fluorescents snap and buzz overhead, making everyone look pasty and British. It's like last call's ugly lights times 10.
The majority of the customers crammed into this Fishtown tacklebox are queuing up to place or pick up take-out orders. Huddled over a bowl of baigan bharta (pea-speckled barbecued eggplant mash humming with green chilies and ginger) like a squirrel protecting its nut, I could feel their hungry eyes on me.
Brave the flock of seagulls because it's worth eating in, not for the restaurant's good looks but for the theater in the open kitchen. The crammed cook's quarters are so close you can see the heat rippling off the tandoor as the hair-netted baker fires naan after naan. He dusts loaves with mint or basil, layers others with potatoes, onions or paneer. Raisin, coconut, almond and pistachio lend the peshawari naan its faint, fruity sweetness.
In Hindi, "ekta" means unity, as in the unity of flavors that define Indian cuisine. Sure, the vermilion vindaloo assaulted my tear ducts at first, but after a few sweaty, watery-eyed bites and a sip of their fire-extinguisher mango lassi, the red chili stew's individual flavors began emerging. Cumin. Coriander. Red and green cardamom. Slowly coming into focus like a Magic Eye picture. Woven together like an intricate tapestry.
Coconut milk-quenched lamb chettined was less spicy, awarded only one chili on Ekta's three-chili scale, but still glowed with a warm, winter-be-gone heat courtesy of curry leaves, cumin, poppy, fennel and mustard seeds. Roasted cumin stoked a fragrant fire in the masaladar chola, a vegetarian chickpea stew tarted up with pomegranate seeds, while crushed black pepper, ginger and green chilies crusted the kali mirch ka machhli (nuggets of fried tilapia) in a zesty jacket. Even the papadums cackled with spice: star anise, nutmeg, garam masala. The thin flame-toasted wafers accompanied with the shrimp biryani, a one-pot wonder of fluffy basmati, tender crustaceans, raisins, cashews and mint.
When it comes to spice, normally I'm a heat-seeking missile, so I was surprised that my favorite dish at Ekta was among the menu's mildest. Not the crisp, greaseless onion bhaji or the minty, tamarind-streaked samosa chat--though both of those not-hot starters charmed--but the chicken korma. Ekta's cooks just killed it on this one: a mellow curry so deep golden it was as if Midas himself made it.
Thickened with heavy cream and cashew paste, spiced with green cardamom and mace, the nutty, buttery korma must be what Indians turn to in times of comfort. After the tender cubes of chicken were gone, I piled my plate with basmati Himalayas and poured on the surplus sauce. So good I smoked a cigarette afterward.
But a nagging adulterer's guilt tugged at my post-korma bliss. Even now I can't shake the feeling that I just slept with my best friend's ex. After all, I (as well as many others, I'm sure) owe Tiffin a debt of gratitude. Most of what I know about Indian food I learned there. When I thought I was eating Kobe beef, they showed me that it was Lunchables bologna all along.
So I'm sorry, Tiff, but there's someone else. It was a one-time--okay, two-time--thing, but I can't promise I'll never see them again. Especially not when they deliver anywhere in the city limits. So consider this my Ekta contrition. I'll still come visit, but I can't stay for dinner.
"Ekta" meaning "Unity" in Hindi, referring to the Unity of Spices in our food.Chef Raju Bhattarai & Chef Bishnu Pokharel. These owners of Ekta personally ensure the quality of their food.....
Dinner with Luke Palladino