Tiffin

Indian delivery in the city? Munish Narula's new place brings it home, and the food's so good it's worth going out for.

Posted: July 29, 2007

I never expected to miss Minar Palace like I did.

Its building was a grungy, rickety rowhouse long before it was bulldozed to make way for a parking lot. Its standard Indian menu ranged from good enough to unspectacular.

But those lentil daals and curried chicken tikka stews were still consistently better than most of the other workmanlike Indian kitchens in town. And I suspect those who used Minar Palace regularly, as my family did - as a home-delivery blessing of incredibly cheap but tasty dinners - never had an inkling of its actual decrepitude. Because they never went there.

All we knew, once it closed last summer, was that options for ethnic delivery food in Center City were suddenly dreary and slim - a glaring shortcoming for a town that prides itself on eating well.

Could Tiffin owner Munish Narula become our new home-delivery tandoor hero? You can bet his precious new iPhone on it.

The Wharton-trained Narula, who founded (then left) Old City's well-regarded Karma, is a food entrepreneur with a high-tech fetish. And he's determined to take the mundane task of ordering supper into the realm of cyber-convenience, serviced by crisply efficient deliverymen in ties guided to your door by GPS tracking.

I'll get back to Tiffin's somewhat convoluted online identity in a moment - because it works, though not as seamlessly yet as it should. Tiffin's humble restaurant storefront on Girard Avenue, which currently pays homage to Minar's downscale frump, is another continuing storyline about to improve.

It is Tiffin's cooking that has me truly excited, because it is the most vividly flavored and intriguingly varied Indian food in town.

The name, Tiffin, was inspired by the lunch courier networks of Bombay, in which barefoot deliverymen called dabbawallas bring multichambered metal boxes of freshly home-cooked meals to office workers each day. And the heart of Narula's operation was dedicated to creating a changing, daily selection of three complete box meals inspired by homey specialties rarely seen on typical restaurant menus.

A recent tiffin called subzi mangoli, for example, brought a medley of fresh vegetables in a richly creamed curry tarted up with sweet mango pulp. Another had tender morsels of chicken cloaked in a smoky puree of charcoal-roasted eggplant baingan bharta. Each came with sides of fluffy basmati rice, wonderful curried pumpkin, and an earthy daal stew of yellow lentils.

The tiffins are a fabulous bargain, ranging from $7.50 for vegetarian to $9.50 for one with lamb. They can also be conveniently preordered online at Tiffin.com for delivery that day or later in the week.

But the tiffins do take some planning (lunch orders must be in by 10 a.m., dinners by 2 p.m.). So Narula has created a separate and more extensive a la carte menu at a separate Web site, Tiffinstore.com, to accommodate the last-minute traditionalists - and that menu, usually delivered within the hour, has quickly become 80 percent of his business.

Granted, I've never made it through a complete online order without panicking and calling to confirm. And the dual-Web-site format is confusing. But it does work, despite the frustration of trying to find the online menu (just click "order online").

It's worth venturing beyond the tiffin specials, because chef Raju Bhattarai's cooking is reliably great, with sauces that taste distinct for every dish, and a flavorful brightness that comes from the freshly ground spices.

The bone-in tandoori chicken is plump and juicy, its yogurt and chile-marinated meat ringing with mustard oil and ginger and the singe of a charcoal roast. This kitchen works off-the-bone chicken wonders, too, as in creamy tomato butter chicken, the juicier dark-meat cousin to the white-meat "tikka masala," both of which exude cardamom and clove and smoke-toasted fenugreek leaves.

We also loved the special mint chicken, breast meat napped in an herbaceous green puree that pulsed with fresh chile heat and mint. The badami chicken tikka was another surprise hit, tenderized in a white marinade of sour cream, pureed almonds and roasted fennel seeds that proves flavorful Indian cooking isn't always incendiary.

Not that Tiffin shies from spice. The marvelously tender lamb chops and lamb leg boti kebab were as hot as the red chile paste that clung to the meat looked. The rich dark onion stew of the lamb roganjosh also had a swell of heat behind its aromatic fennel and garam masala. The big butterflied shrimp in coconut milk gravy flecked with rye seeds and curry leaves gave a full-flavored nod to a traditional South Indian brew.

The restaurant's many excellent vegetarian selections were also bolstered with a well-rounded tingle, though the chickpeas of chana masala were brightened with pomegranate seeds. And my favorites - the malai kofta vegetarian fritters in cashew cream, and the slow-cooked black lentil daal makhni - were memorable for their luxurious savor.

Such hearty stews are the reason Indian cuisine translates so well in delivery. But some things are still better served fresh in the restaurant dining room. Like the onion bhaji fritters, which are still crisp and lacy inside their delicate chickpea flour crusts. Or the refreshingly crunchy aloo papri chaat salad that layers lentil wafers and snappy chickpeas beneath cool streaks of sour white yogurt, herby mint chutney, and tangy sweet tamarind sauce.

Even the naan flatbreads, Tiffin's biggest weakness, were tender and soft when eaten on Girard Avenue. I loved the Peshawari style, lined with a sweet green paste of pistachios, coconut and raisins. It's as close as you'll get to dessert at Tiffin. But that course is just one of the many works still in progress here.

The tiny mango-colored dining room, for that matter, its 24 seats arrayed around odd, amoeba-shaped tables beside the open kitchen, is expected to shift upstairs to a double-sized space within weeks of this review.

Narula had never anticipated this address to be much more than a home-base kitchen for his delivery empire. But now, he envisions the downstairs becoming a chai salon, cultural bazaar, spice market and take-out lounge, where you'll be able to rent a Bollywood movie with your boti kebab.

And so, this well-curried answer to our home-delivery woes may soon be an even better excuse to eat out, as well.


Next week: Craig LaBan reviews Fuji in Haddonfield.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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