First Bite: Philadelphia Chutney Company

Restaurant critic Trey Popp considers the dosas, an Indian snack specialty, at a new Sansom Street spot.

I want to say that I never forgot my first masala dosa — a crepe made from a fermented batter of finely ground rice and black lentils, which, when folded around its cargo of spiced potatoes and dipped in coconut chutney, channels the culinary genius of South India as eloquently as a baguette expresses the soul of France. But here I am, ten years later, the cupboard of my memory bare.

There is no excuse for it but my excessive consumption. If I don’t remember the street-food artist who took my dosa virginity, it’s because he turned me into a full-fledged dosa slut, a man(iac) who scarfed down subsequent renditions everywhere from Hyderabad to Mysore, occasionally for all three meals of the day.

And then, deprivation. It was a good thing I got my fill in India, because they’re hard to find over here. Occasionally you’ll come across a North Indian restaurant that makes dosas on Sundays, but for the most part you’re out of luck.

Until about ten days ago, when Philadelphia Chutney Company soft-opened at 1628 Sansom Street. It was a bit of a practice run—they sold everything for $5, hoping to iron out any kinks before their grand opening—but there are times to wait and times to pounce, and I was sick of waiting.

The brains behind this modest, fast food style storefront belong to a pair of guys whose roots lie in North India: attorney Nirav Mehta and Baldev Singh, who owns several restaurants in the ‘burbs.  The cooks in back, though, are Tamils.  And they make a damn fine masala dosa.  The crepe, a good foot-and-a-half in diameter, carries a subtle tang of fermentation.  Its textural attributes — crispy enough to crackle, pliant enough to fold around the potatoes — are in classic equipoise. The potatoes themselves are yellow with turmeric, fragrant with curry leaves, and zippy with mustard seeds — which turn up again in the snow-white, refreshing coconut chutney. It’s been so long and this rendition was so splendid, it was like losing my dosa virginity all over again.

The rest of the menu is a mix of vegetarian Indian street snacks and fusion-style fare, and the former far outshine the latter. Especially good is the Gobi Manchurian, crisp-fried balls of moist shredded cauliflower doused in a spicy sauce that all but demands a mango lassi on the side.  (I hope they’ll add the plain, unflavored yogurt variety to their drink menu.)  Fried lentil cakes are good vehicles for about a half-dozen chutneys, which are thin and finely pureed in the South Indian fashion, and for the most part excellent.  Besides that coconut chutney, I especially liked the spicy mango. A cilantro version was too thick, and came across more like refrigerated pesto. There are also fantastic samosas, lighter and flakier than what I get at the Indo-Pak grocers in West Philly.

Those charms fade the further the menu departs from its South Indian core. An uttapam (made from the same batter as a dosa, but smaller and thicker, like a pancake) topped with grilled corn, roasted peppers and onions, and arugula was fine, as far as it went, but didn’t hold a candle to the classic masala dosa. There’s really no reason why you’d come here to get a whole-wheat tortilla wrap enclosing tough bits of mock chicken, arugula, bell peppers and curry chutney.

But the classic dosas are a treat worth seeking. As I ate my second one on the steps of First Baptist church, enraptured, tearing off palm-sized sections of the dosa and pinching them around the curried potatoes with my right hand, a man deep into his iPod mix stopped cold.  He plucked out an earbud and fixed me with a gaze that required no explanation.

“It’s a masala dosa,” I told him.  “They make them right down the block.  They’re the best snack food ever invented.  You’ve got to get one.”

He blinked, said thanks, and carried on in that direction.  If he took my advice, he’ll never forget his first time.

Philadelphia Chutney Company, 1628 Sansom Street, (215) 564-6446

*Photo courtesy Kirsten Henri