Is Indian the new Chinese?
Mumbai Bistro represents an interesting point in the evolution of Indian food in the city. Until it opened its doors on the 900 block of Locust this past July, subcontinental dining had been heading in an entirely different direction around here, the focus generally shifting toward clear, less-compromising flavors that implied a confidence that non-native eaters could and would get it. And, indeed, restaurants like Ekta and the ever-expanding Tiffin have done more than their part to change the food vocabulary of Philadelphia.
Which is what makes Mumbai such an interesting place to consider. While it doesn’t hew to the orthodoxy of many other standout Indian spots around town—including University City’s New Delhi, which Mumbai’s Rick Singh also co-owns with other family members—it represents the further mainstreaming of a cuisine, and all the good and bad that that implies.
Chicken korma provides a handy example of how completely Mumbai succeeds when its flavors are fully developed. Here, the subtle spiciness of the yogurt sauce in which the plastic-fork-tender chicken was simmered gently tickled the back of the throat but not the tongue, the full range of home-ground spices allowed unimpeded expression.
Firmer but no less moist was the chicken tikka masala. Here, though, was the first indication that Mumbai was aiming at a different target: The sauce—sweet, creamy, tomato-based—could have been at home just as easily at a neighborhood Italian restaurant as here, and a wedge of garlic naan made it even clearer: India meets South Philly.
When Mumbai gets it right, things turn out beautifully. Vegetable malai kofta is hearty enough to satisfy even avowed carnivores, and the homemade curry powder lends the firm veggie balls themselves a depth that makes the tomato-yogurt sauce a nice addition, but not nearly as necessary as it would be had the balls been less well-crafted.
Paneer masala proves that mild and interesting can co-exist. And despite the inherently more assertive flavors of the bell peppers and onions, it’s the homemade cheese cubes that steal the stage here: The milky roundness of their flavor nods in the direction of really well-made mozzarella, and holds your interest despite the familiarity.
Homemade vegetable samosas, forgettably bland on my first visit, were far more interesting the second time I tried them. Cumin and coriander were in greater evidence, as was the turmeric that, this time, had been used as much for its sweet-savory flavor as its telltale golden color. During a follow-up phone interview, Singh explained that he and his team deliberately started off most of their dishes on the milder side, and have been regularly ratcheting up the spice as they get a firmer grip on the desires of their customers.
Mumbai dal, salty and rib-sticking, was enough to make me wish for the cold weather to arrive just to have an excuse to eat more of this glistening, deeply colored lentil stew. This is a seriously delicious vegan dish, just as suited for meat-lovers as it is for those who abstain.
Then there were misses—like a forgettable mixed-vegetable curry, whose mushy cauliflower, watery string beans, soft potatoes, squash and thoroughly underperforming sauce could have come from Trader Joe’s. And the milk balls in gulab jamun tasted of the fridge and proved to be little more than vessels for the monolithically sweet honey in which they rested—for dessert, better to stick with the ras malai, light cheese dumplings in sweet milk whose cardamom florality made them a far more interesting choice.
I wonder, however, how much Mumbai should be judged by the metric of spicy authenticity, because they seem to be aiming for something else entirely: A neighborhood Indian restaurant whose primary focus is on healthfully prepared dishes that can be enjoyed quickly and with minimal fuss. In that regard, it’s succeeding beautifully, just as the best Americanized-but-no-less-enjoyable Chinese restaurants have all over the country.
That’s the good news. The bad is that there’s risk involved: By sanding off the more idiosyncratic edges of the food to make it appealing to a wider audience, the soul of some of the dishes is lost. Fortunately, the team behind Mumbai seems to constantly be adjusting its preparations for the better as needed.
Regardless, Mumbai should, at the very least, prove to be a gateway through which Indian-food novices walk on their way toward an appreciation of the variety and diversity of the subcontinent’s cuisines. For the rest of us who have been eating and enjoying the food all along, Mumbai is a quick, convenient, pleasant way to get a fix of some of the flavors we love. And even if it so far lacks the excitement of other, less compromising spots around town, that’s something to cheer.
930 Locust St.
Cuisine type: Straightforward, approachable Indian food.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 11:30am-9pm.
Price range: Entrees: $4.95 per pound; 10-ounce portions: $3.99-$4.99
Atmosphere: Clean lines, fleaming surfaces, pleasant for both eat-in and takeout.
Food: Approachable, pleasant and best when a bit spicier.
Service: The buffet means that services is generally not an issue, but everyone here is very nice.
Dinner with Luke Palladino