An update of Indian cuisine, faithful to authentic flavors

Posted: April 06, 2008

The sparkling warmth of cardamom and curry leaves bloomed above our table at Bindi the moment dinner landed before us.

And as I inhaled the aromas of coconut-steeped Goan shrimp, milk-braised lamb, and tangy pork vindaloo — so seductive, so heady with exotic spice, and so vividly presented — I couldn’t help but wonder: What took so long?

I wasn’t thinking of the service at Bindi, which was timely and informative in the casual but sophisticated way our best BYOBs have refined. What caught me was the notion that it had taken until 2008 for the flavors of India to finally get a thoughtful update for our contemporary restaurant scene.

It’s not like Indian food is new around here, even if the truly exciting authentic options are still limited. Granted, the emergence of Tiffin in the past year has set a tasty new local standard for the classics. And a handful of far-flung suburban outposts, such as Devi in Exton, produce genuinely worthy South Indian cuisine.

But no one in Philadelphia had successfully woven the intricate spicings and vibrant regionalism of the subcontinent into a vision for the modern American diner without dumbing the flavors down. Until now.

Chef Marcie Turney, who co-owns Bindi with partner Valerie Safran, has taken obvious Western liberties with some creations that might give pause to some traditionalists — like the Indian parents of Penn students who have been brought to scout a hip spot for their kids’ graduation meal.

Have they ever tasted smoked salmon cured in jaggery (palm sugar), herbs and cumin over lotus chips with green apple and sour lemon pickle? Probably not. They’ve also probably not encountered pani puri dough puffs, usually laden with a watery tamarind-potato mix, topped instead with morsels of duck and shredded jicama. Add a splash of the spicy-sour cranberry water, though, and the essential elements are there — intensified by the tender chew of gamy meat, which brings echoes of its fenugreek, fennel and mustard seed Bengali rub.

Much as Turney and Safran used Mexican flavors for inspiration rather than strict interpretation at their Lolita just across 13th Street, they do not represent Bindi to be an exploration of classic Indian cuisine. But like the 54-seat room itself, a spare but stylish space refitted from Grocery’s short-lived cafe with just a few well-chosen motifs — lotus-flower chandeliers, earth tones, and a modern arabesque metal wall fixture — the modern Indian theme is effectively evoked.But I find Turney’s cooking here so much more compelling than at Lolita because her dishes are, in fact, deeply rooted in the rigors of traditional Indian cooking. After a crash course with respected cookbook author Julie Sahni, Turney has immersed herself in the laborious, no-shortcut building blocks of this cuisine, working deftly with ingredients from asafetida (resin from giant fennel root) to ajwain (thyme-scented carum seeds), and sambar podi, an elaborate South Indian spice powder that is just one of 20 seasoning blends freshly toasted and ground for this menu. And the effort shines vividly through the complex flavors of these dishes.

The mussels gozzoo swoon beneath a gingery tomato-tamarind gravy that draws addictive earthiness from toasted red lentil dal. A ghee-buttered brown lentil dal makhani, swirling with spice, sits below an awesomely tender milk-braised lamb shank infused with cardamom and clove. Huge shrimp and snappy yard beans bask in a rich xacuti gravy of freshly grated coconut milk that rings with chiles, curry leaves, cinnamon and star anise.

Turney’s pork vindaloo, though, may be Bindi’s best example of a refined classic. The typical slow-stewed meat is upgraded with yieldingly soft seared tenderloin. And the meat’s aromatic crust of black cardamom, clove, cumin and nigella seeds sparks against the hot and sour gravy, a vinegar- and wine-tinged brew that unfurls with sweet spice on the tongue before a final whip-crack of chile heat. A comforting puree of creamy cauliflower and a sweet mango-date chutney cushions the vindaloo’s bold flavors.

A couple of promising dishes — the cinnamony kofta lamb meatballs, and a grilled roti with eggplant — suffered from too much spice. (By contrast, a sweet jaggery-braised short rib with onions was so mild as to be bland by comparison).

But Bindi makes two amazingly refreshing fruit mixers to quench the burn, a ginger-zipped lemonade tarted up with pomegranate and a mango punch brightened with lime and cardamom that was dangerous spiked with rum.

By my second visit, though, the kitchen was able to paint a vibrant palette of spice without torching the taste buds. A rustic lentil dosa, deliberately thicker than the sheer giant crepes that are most typical, was filled with coarse-ground moong beans that played against a dollop of curried potato masala and tart yogurt raita filled with green grapes.

Crisp samosa dumplings garnered a shade of extra sweetness from parsnips added to the potato-paneer stuffing. Turney tweaked one of my favorite Indian salads, papdi chaat, by stacking the sweet-tart of fruit (mango and apples) over an already lively medley of sour yogurt, tangy chutneys, and chickpea-crisp crunch.

The "parsi wedding parcel" of flaky white cobia, meanwhile, was both mild and aromatic, the thick fish fillet baked in a banana-leaf package with coconut chutney, and served next to a fluffy semolina "uppuma" cake filled with snappy green fava beans.

Bindi doesn't ease up when it comes to dessert. There are the dual thimble-shaped towers of dense kulfi ice creams made from pistachio and goat cheese, as well as blackberry with almonds. There is a moist cardamom cake stacked with spiced chocolate pot de creme and a cap of somewhat jarringly salted caramel.

But my favorite finish was the pot of fresh chai. When I poured the frothy milk assam tea into our cups, the aromas of star anise, cinnamon and clove drifted up and hovered over our table like a sweet, exotic cloud.

On April 13, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Javier in Haddonfield. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or

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