At Indeblue, where you can dip pulled-pork samosas in blue-cheese sauce and mop up apple/goat cheese chutney with bacon-wrapped bison kabobs, one of the thornier questions in Philadelphia dining rears its head once more: What does it take to get people to eat Indian food in this town?
For too long, the answer has been cheap chicken tikka masala and sturdy takeout containers. Attempts to offer more ambitious visions have been greeted with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes outright derision—even when they’re simultaneously racking up critical acclaim. Bindi, which opened to strong reviews in 2008, became the only business failure marking Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s transformative tenure on 13th Street. “After a while,” Safran remarked when they shuttered the place, “you get tired of hearing people say, ‘We don’t eat Indian food.’”
Tashan? It’s still hanging on, but has been unable to overcome the impression that it is living on borrowed time—which deepened in June with the sudden dismissal of chef Sylva Senat, whose laser-tight French execution made his post-curry cuisine worth the hefty price tag.
So, is Rakesh Ramola, who opened the original Indeblue in Collingswood in 2009, nervous about bringing his own spin on higher-end Indian dining to Philadelphia? Not in the least.
“I’m the guy who challenges everything,” the Bombay native says. “I’m do-or-die.”
Perhaps it helps that he’s seeing so many familiar faces in his handsome new digs, where the first thing you notice is the dark glimmer of a cocktail bar, not a devotional statue of Ganesha. For a long time, Philadelphians have made up a sizeable portion of his Collingswood clientele.
At Indeblue’s second location, they’ll find a handful of old favorites dotting a menu that’s trimmer and more open to Western influences than the one at the New Jersey BYO. With Ramola at the stoves (while his wife, Heather, oversees the Collingswood kitchen), that mostly boils down to recognizably Indian technique (curries, chutneys, grains) with the occasional addition of unorthodox ingredients like tofu, truffle oil and, yes, even blue cheese.
That last item was a little jarring directly on the heels of a pair of sweet scallops lashed by the chili heat of a soupy South Indian rasam suffused with the perfume of curry leaves. But judge it as a dish in isolation—a deep-fried pocket of tamarind-tanged pork shoulder funked up with a touch of blue cheese—and I’ll confess that I liked it enough to order it again.
That went double for the “Provençal naan,” showered with a confetti of rosemary, thyme, oregano, and particularly fragrant sage. Would you find anything like it on the subcontinent? Not without a hell of a goose chase. But if a boulangerie in Nice started featuring this, it would sell out in a flash, so why quibble?
Well, there may still be one reason—not with that particular flatbread, but with the apple/goat cheese chutney, which I never quite figured out how to marry with any of the other dishes I ordered. Or the “naan pizza” that was over-sweetened with rose petal marmalade, over-cheesed with mozzarella and goat, and simply irreconcilable with dishes like plump mussels in a mild coconut curry, or Ramola’s dynamite spinach chaat, in which the baby greens are battered in chickpea flour and flash-fried into papery crisps dotted with shallots, tamarind-date chutney and yogurt. My sense is that for some of these half-Western oddball dishes to click, they will have to be coursed out more carefully.
And yet there’s a compliment hiding behind that criticism: The reason Ramola’s unorthodox dishes don’t always gel is that his more classical ones are often so good. (The South Indian ones shine especially brightly: That spicy scallop and the mustardy shrimp/scallop/mussel moilee are musts.) And he’s also something of a rice whisperer, from the saucy richness of his goat biryani to the fluffy, dry elegance of grains scented variously with saffron, lemon, and whole garam spices.
His cooking is most interesting, though, when it features just enough of a twist to cast something familiar in a fresh light. Exquisitely tender lamb chops, thrumming with mace and nutmeg, come with a white wine/rice wine vinegar “mojito” sauce that provides a pleasantly harmonious top note. Long hots stuffed with house-made paneer and a touch of mozzarella, spiked with extra chili powder and sauced with tomatoes, seemed both credibly Indian and classically Philadelphian at the same time. Squash stuffed with paneer, cashews, pistachios and raisins was also a winner.
Less successful was a lamb shank dressed with a curiously flat-tasting sauce that fell short on its promise of black cardamom and ginger. And though I loved the rich tang of red wine vinegar in Ramola’s pork osso buco vindaloo, I wish the chilies hadn’t gone totally missing. Indeblue’s laudable drink menu has plenty that can stand up to heat, from the saffron-honey sparkle of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch to a minty grapefruit-pineapple-gin punch that was fruity without being too sweet.
One would hope those thirst-quenchers alone would be enough to drive Philadelphians toward finer Indian food. But if you need blue-cheese sauce as well, you can’t fault Indeblue for giving it a whirl.