By LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
I have known perfectly rational people who eat out frequently and are willing to try a variety of ethnic foods but who will not eat Indian cuisine. What I find so bizarre about this is the fact that for centuries European adventurers like the 13th century Venetian, Marco Polo, literally risked their lives to travel to India and China, possibly taking a couple of years in the journey if they were able to get back alive at all. (Most did not.) And they did it to get the same herbs and spices that many Americans jettison today.
Chef/owner Rakesh Ramola, of the 1-year-old IndeBlue at 205 S. 13th St., Philadelphia (just south of Walnut Street) and a 5-year-old restaurant of the same name in Collingswood, N.J., also has difficulty understanding this conundrum.
Ramola was born and raised in Mumbai, India, in “a family of chefs.” He learned to perfect his skills at three culinary schools in India. After he went abroad and cooked professionally in several countries, his wife, Heather, who grew up in Pennsylvania, persuaded him to stay in the Philadelphia area and open a restaurant. (The couple have three daughters.)
“I came here originally just to visit my cousin,” the handsome chef said in an interview, “but she said, ‘I have a surprise for you, and after this surprise, you will not be leaving the U.S.’ The surprise was an introduction to her co-worker, Heather. We started dating and eventually got married. So my cousin was right.”
When it comes to Indian cuisine, Ramola knows he not only has to produce consistently good food but that he also has to win over a significant percentage of Americans who seem to think that Indian food comes from another planet.
“Many Americans think that Indian food is spicy, greasy and heavy and that you have to take a nap after eating it,” he said. “This is not true. Indian food is very healthy. Many of the ingredients come from trees — bark, stems and roots. Things like garlic, turmeric and ginger. It is colorful, natural, very healthy and full of flavor.”
IndeBlue, which is in the Washington Square West neighborhood, just a couple blocks from the Academy of Music, Kimmel Center and other major theaters, has a gorgeous 1,600-square-foot dining room with a marble top bar, lots of bronze elements, dimly lit hanging lights and recessed lighting, dark walls, hardwood tables and floors, Indian artifacts on the walls and seating for about 70 as well as a 12-seat chef’s table.
Chef Ramola’s menu is full of classics and some contemporary tweaking of popular Indian dishes. An appetizer called crispy spinach chaat ($8) could be in the space capsule. The dehydrated spinach is zephyr-light and gossamer-thin, crunchy and full of sublime flavor, enhanced by shallots, chopped tomatoes and sweet yogurt. Like a good hot dog, this dish feeds the hand that bites it.
A diver scallops appetizer ($12) is pan-seared and served in a memorable, spicy chili sauce with coconut milk and curry leaf, perfect for dipping with onion seed naan ($3), our favorite bread in the world, which is like a soft pizza crust. (No wonder Marco Polo took his life in his hands.)
A fiery seafood moilee entree with pristine jumbo lump crab and jumbo shrimp with lemon rice ($25) and a much more mild entree special of mahi mahi ($27) with a shimmer of saffron rice and mustard seed were both aesthetically presented and mining pure flavors, giving IndeBlue a leg up on other Indian restaurants in the Delaware Valley (except for Tashan).
I had glasses of two white wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Gewurztraminer, which normally go well with Asian food, but they were overwhelmed by the spices. Beer would be a better choice or the fine Chai sangria ($8), sweetened with orange liqueur and brandy.
Another cooling balm for the palate is the smooth, icy homemade sorbet ($7), in my case a coconut lychee sphere reclining on slices of juicy pineapple. Price-wise, I would not say the food here is economy gastronomy, but it is definitely good value for the money. Your memory could easily tiptoe back to this food when your back is turned.
Apparently chef Ramola is winning over lots of skeptics. On yelp.com, the most popular website for restaurant comments, there were 121 customer “reviews” when I checked them in late May. The average rating was four-and-a-half stars out of five, one of the highest of any restaurant in the Delaware Valley. During our recent mid-week visit, the place was packed, with several tables “turned over” throughout the evening.
One thing I love about restaurants is that most workers have had lots of interesting experiences and are quite willing to share them with you. For example, IndeBlue’s manager, Tobias Moser, lived in Switzerland for several years and still has family there. And our server, Josh Cutler, was previously a bartender at an upscale restaurant in the Mississippi Delta, where he met quite a few celebrities.
“I played pool with Morgan Freeman,” he said, “who was a very nice, humble man. Oprah Winfrey also came in, and she was very nice. Her bill was just $20, and she left a $150 tip. On the other hand, John Grisham (one of the top-selling novelists in the world but who is to literature what Twinkies are to haute cuisine) was not a nice guy at all. No one wanted to wait on him.”
IndeBlue offers live sitar music Tuesday, starting at 7 p.m., and at Sunday brunch. Always available is a large selection of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menu items. Happy Hour is 5 to 7 p.m. daily at the bar, where there are reduced price specials on food and drinks. The Sunday brunch menu features traditional Indian breakfast and lunch items as well as omelets, French toast and wraps prepared with a bit of Indian punctuation.
Parking can be a hassle in center city, of course, but IndeBlue has an arrangement with the Holiday Inn, on the north side of Walnut Street, between 13th and Juniper, just one block from IndeBlue. With a ticket that is stamped at the restaurant, parking is just $10.
For more information, call 215-545-4633 or visit www.indebluerestaurant.com