The Indian-restaurant scene in Philadelphia mirrors, in some ways, the gentrification of once-edgy neighborhoods in New York. Along with increased accessibility and the diminished sense of risk comes a perhaps inevitable turn toward the pedestrian. Remember the first time you ventured into NoHo and had to sidestep crack vials and beggars? There’s a Best Buy there now, the drugs replaced by made-in-China MP3 players and flat-screens.
Indian food in Philly is like that. Ten, 15 years ago, your first vindaloo was likely to have been a momentous experience, the searing heat amplified by a generous dose of vinegar, your tongue burning as if you’d just licked a hot Zippo.
Now, of course, you have to search for those kinds of experiences: The spread of this most complex cuisine has, in too many cases, resulted in pedestrian, pandering versions of once-exciting dishes.
There are exceptions, of course—places where you can still go to have your buds seared and your expectations challenged. But on the whole, Indian food in Philly has gone the way of so much of the food of China. There are essentially two strata from which to choose: Authentic spots and Americanized ones like most everyplace that slides a delivery menu through your apartment door.
The plainly named Indian Restaurant on South Street is an interesting—and ultimately successful—amalgam of both. And though it mines the milder side, its focus on fresh ingredients and well-developed (albeit familiar) flavors—not to mention a careful touch with cooking temps—allows it to stand proud in this crowded field.
Humble naan is a good example. Most of us, after all, have gotten used to glutenous rounds of quasi-steamed bread with all the texture and pull of undercooked pizza crust. The naan at Indian Restaurant, however, with their pizzelle-crisp underside and delicately chewy top, provide not only a nice, snappy transition from the housemade papadums, but also enough structure to serve as handier scoops than you’ve probably grown accustomed to for the dishes you’ll eat with them.
Among the best of those dishes is the lamb korma. And while this isn’t the flashiest one in the city, it’s nonetheless a subtle, well-layered one. More approachable, but certainly not dumbed-down, its creamy sauce owes just as much of its character to coconut milk and an undertow of almond as it does to the oblongs of pink-hearted lamb marooned within.
Chicken achari was hotter, but not searingly so—just more high-toned, a result of its spine of pickles, ginger and garlic. As with the lamb, the chicken arrived moist and tender. The fresh shrimp appetizer with silky onions and chunks of green bell pepper was also cooked with care, but could have delivered more flavor, more oomph.
That was a rare stumble, and so much of the rest of the menu here is seriously appealing. Bhuija arrived as a trio of sweet-savory beignets, the occasional dreadlock of fried onion sticking out from the center like some sort of delicious Koosh Ball. They were fabulous unadorned—bring a six of IPA for these alone—and even better with the housemade chutneys, especially the almost Worcestershire-savory tamarind and the gorgeously perfumed cilantro.
Vegetarians will feel at home here, too. And while the chickpeas in the channa saag could have been firmer (canned will do that, unfortunately), they nonetheless provided a lovely fibrous snap to each naan-scoop of spinach. With just a bit more depth and layering of flavor, this really would have been a standout. And unlike so many denser mulligatawny soups, Indian Restaurant’s is brothier, more tomato-y, better allowing the cardamom and cinnamon to take the lead.
Perhaps more than anything, I was struck by the cleanliness of the flavors here, the purity of the (occasionally too mild) spicing, and the careful work in the kitchen. Indian Restaurant, it seems, is an Indian restaurant that has been able to find a comfortable middle ground between authenticity and approachability—a place that has avoided, thankfully and tastefully, the pitfalls of the genre’s gentrification.
1634 South St.
Cuisine type: Approachable Indian.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-10pm; Sat.-Sun., 12:30pm-10pm.
Price range: Entrees under $20.
Atmosphere: Nice blend of modern touches and classic decor elements.
Food: Familiar flavors prepared with care.
Service: Friendly and more than happy to offer guidance.
Dinner with Luke Palladino