Philadelphia meets Bombay at almost-exotic Bindi.
Philadelphia loves its Italian food. We love the waiters with accents and the foreign-phrase-sprinkled menus that lend our neighborhood Italian spots a comforting veneer of authenticity. At the same time, we also love totally inauthentic spaghetti and meatballs from those venerable red-gravy institutions around 9th Street. You can see the same contradiction at Amada, with its vast pantry of imported goodies and a vibe that violates the very spirit of Spanish tapas, which is more of a bar crawl than a fancy meal. But this suits our proclivity for mixing a morsel of the exotic into a familiar Philly dining formula.
So when Lolita opened in 2004, no one really minded that the Mexican fare turned out by chef Marcie Turney was more evocative of other Philadelphia BYOBs than of Baja. Lolita predates the proliferation of real taquerias in the city, and its menu has, at least, always been more authentic than Stephen Starr’s faux Mexican joint, El Vez, across the street. At Lolita, Pennsylvania-grown portabella mushrooms and micro greens share the plate with more traditional Mexican items, like house-made tortillas and carnitas.
Four years later, Turney has proven herself a master of ersatz ethnic once again. In December, she opened Bindi with partner Valerie Safran. (The pair also own the upscale market Grocery and home store Open House, which flank the new restaurant across 13th Street from Lolita.) And as at Lolita, the dishes are vaguely exotic translations of hearty American fare in which meat, fish and fowl command the spotlight.
At Bindi, inspiration comes from Bombay by way of Brooklyn. Unlike chefs who jet around the world in search of authentic recipes and ingredients before unveiling an international restaurant, Turney journeyed just 100 miles north, to the classroom of Julie Sahni, where she studied with the traditional Indian chef and cookbook author for a mere three days. Turney had never visited India, but she was motivated to try her hand at its cuisine after an eye-opening meal at New York City’s upscale eatery Tamarind. Recognizing Philly’s glut of boring (read: Italian) BYOBs, Turney has long felt compelled to make her restaurants more interesting, and Indian cuisine seemed ripe for her brand of reinterpretation.
Turney’s most successful dishes deviate wildly from the Indian versions that serve as her muse. In India, pani puri is a humble street food, puffs of fried dough filled with a mélange of potatoes and chutneys. Turney’s fine-dining iteration is generously stuffed with five-spice scented duck and sweet potato spiked with ajwain, a lemony relative of caraway and cumin. It’s served with a side of cranberry water, a sweet-tart juice that cuts the duck’s richness. Savory and sweet, soft and crisp, the appetizer embodies the flavor and texture contrasts that make well-crafted dishes of any cuisine a pleasure.
Short-rib vindaloo is another retooled classic. In authentic Indian restaurants, vindaloo’s intense chili heat sears your mouth and draws sweat to your brow. Usually, chunks of stewed lamb, chicken, pork or vegetables convey the capsaicin-rich punishment. But Bindi’s vindaloo is a gentle, balanced affair, with a subtle blend of dried chilies and spices infusing the meaty savor of a caveman-portioned hunk of slow-braised beef, an all but outlawed ingredient among India’s mostly Hindu population. Crunchy pickled onions and lemon-doused carrots enhance the dish.
Mussels, hardly a staple Indian ingredient, are prepared in what would traditionally be used as a braising liquid for meat. The tomato-based broth steams with the herbal perfume of fresh curry leaves and cilantro. In another twist, Turney uses sweet turnips as well as potatoes in her samosas — a perfect foil for the thick, tart and savory yogurt-based raita served on the side. Papdi chaat, often a mess of fried chickpea-flour crisps dripping with sweet chutneys and runny yogurt, is reimagined as a crisp, fresh, salad-like dish, chockablock with shaved apple, cucumber and radish. Cocktail mixers based on mango, ginger, pomegranate and cardamom are proffered in the spirit of India’s penchant for fruit juices, though here, diners fortify them with vodka or rum.
Menu glitches stem from attempts at strict authenticity. Chana masala chicken is a familiar-sounding dish, but it lacks the depth of flavor you’ll find in similar stews at Tiffin or other less expensive but more authentic Indian restaurants. Dhansak, a lamb stew traditional among India’s Parsi population, delivers some heat but none of the fruitiness of fresh chilies, and unrendered fat mars the dish. Desserts, like chocolate-cardamom cake, rice pudding, and kulfi, an Indian-style ice cream, all use exotic spices, but none show the careful execution seen in many of the savory dishes.
It’s not just the food that defies the usual American expectations for an Indian restaurant. Bindi’s sleek, modern decor is absent glittery Christmas lights and golden elephants. Ceiling fans, exposed ducts and artwork dangle from the soaring ceiling. Blond wood and arty ironwork cover the walls. An eye-catching trio of pearlescent capiz-shell chandeliers lends the room an opulent feel. These dramatic fixtures were made in India to resemble lotus flowers, a symbol of prosperity in that country. Bindi’s space has its own personality, but the aesthetic is consistent with Lolita’s stylish vibe and Open House’s urban-chic wares.
All these tweaks glamorize a cuisine that is, in Philadelphia at least, frequently relegated to the ethnic-food ghetto of fringe neighborhoods, student hangouts and steam-tray buffets. Turney’s dialed-down and dressed-up interpretation of Indian fare is familiar, palatable and — most important — completely safe for those who fear the piquant spices and complex sauces that are really the hallmarks of the cuisine.
Bindi, 105 South 13th Street, 215-922-6061, bindibyob.com