Spice Indian Thai Bistro

The pudina paneer tikka appetizer : Cheese cubes around a stuffing of raisins, mint and fennel.
The pudina paneer tikka appetizer : Cheese cubes around a stuffing of raisins, mint and fennel.

Two first-time restaurateurs, a two-nation concept - the menu's Indian side is quite successful, the Thai side less so.

Posted: January 04, 2009

It is an odd but fitting detail that a giant thermometer is affixed to the roof of this Newtown Square strip mall where, ordinarily, most buildings would have a clock. The architect, of course, had no idea that a future tenant - located directly beneath the device - would be serving a menu designed to stoke some heat.

But with a name like Spice Indian Thai Bistro, you can bet that a well-curried meal in this stylish suburban newcomer will take the edge off a chilly Pennsylvania winter.

The prickly tang of a good lamb vindaloo should do the trick for heat-seekers. The tender meat in gingery, vinegar-flared chile gravy lit a perspiration halo that could detect the slightest breeze. But Spice's kitchen, in fact, which ranges to Thailand as well as India, is less about blazing pure hellfire than showing how the subtle complexities of a well-layered curry can weave their magic.

This is especially striking in a lesser-known specialty like chicken coondapur. Inspired by the south Indian port of Mangalore, the pique of red chiles in its sauce is softened by coconut milk infused with cumin, coriander, mustard seed, and the herbal lift of curry leaves. It's a seductive brew for anyone whose Indian experiences have been limited to the more familiar northern Moghul flavors - tandoori-roasted meats and cream-enriched sauces - more typical in U.S. Indian restaurants.

Of course, Spice (unrelated to Old City's Cafe Spice) cooks most of those northern classics fairly well, too. Its Thai repertoire is slightly less successful. But the bi-menu concept is a natural reflection of the partnership behind this six-month-old project, opened by Bangkok-born Navarat Ratanakanaka and Rajesh Ishwar, who hails from near Delhi.

As first-time restaurateurs (they've been partners in a computer-related business), they have accomplished a fair amount here despite some obstacles. The location, in the middle of a hard-to-spot strip mall beside the Regal Cinemas, isn't ideal. The fast-food karma of the space wasn't hot, either, as the previous tenant, a Moe's Southwest Grill, was short-lived.

It's possible all that Tex-Mex salsa presaged the peppery vibes that would eventually resonate here again with Spice, but nothing short of a complete decor overhaul could have won a second look from locals, many of whom have since written me with the justified delight of their discovery. There is even an air of upscale style to the former burrito shop, from the warm earth-tone colors to the Italian glass bubble chandelier, a chic metal mesh curtain up front, and a banquette along the side with upholstery that rides up the entire length of the wall.

The service is warm and outgoing, but the staff still gets a wide-eyed look of slight confusion when it comes to details like pacing meals, remembering who ordered what, clearing the used dishes, and just finding enough room for the enormous square plates.

If you order as much food as we did, it can be a problem. But Spice's menu is so huge, some exploration is necessary to make sense of it all. The dual-cuisine concept was no doubt also conceived to please the widest audience, bolstered by the notion that these curry-centric traditions have a lot in common. But no kitchen can be everything to everyone, and, while Spice's Thai side isn't bad, per se, it's clearly the weaker link.

A Thai Treasure appetizer platter, for example, is a fine assortment of starting nibbles, with both steamed and crisply fried dumplings, as well as skewers of tender chicken satay served with a sweet peanut tamarind dip. But while the coconut-milk curries, lemongrass soup and pad Thai were decent, with dueling notes of sweetness and spice, none had a mean enough streak of sourness, the funky undertow of fish sauce and lime that gives Thai its authentic twang.

I found far more distinctive flavors from the Indian kitchen overseen by Vignesh "Vicky" Kumar, a 24-year-old native of Chennai who spent some time at Chola, a midtown Manhattan spot known for its southern Indian flavors.

There are lively appetizers like the unusual "tangi eggplant," crispy round chips of eggplant drizzled with sweet and sour tamarind chutney. The papdi chat was one of the best renditions I've had of the Indian street snack, a riot of textures (snappy spinach crackers, soft potato cubes, firm chickpeas and crispy papri wafers) dressed in a colorful flow of chutneys, herby green mint, dark tamarind, and tart white yogurt dusted with powdered chile and cilantro. Even that familiar dumpling, the samosa, was done with notable finesse, the house-made dough delicate and crispy, the potato stuffing nicely chunky, not leaden, and infused with a spice box of aromatics.

Vegetarians have plenty to savor here, including an almost meaty pudina paneer tikka appetizer that stacks firm cubes of dense homemade cheese around a stuffing of raisins, mint and fennel, then roasts them in the tandoor. The paneer makhani serves that same cheese, which has the texture of an extra-firm tofu, in a richly creamed tomato gravy scented with fenugreek that recalls the sauce from a butter chicken. A brothy sambar stew is like a south Indian minestrone, its yellow lentil broth tinged with tomatoes, coconut, red chiles and cumin, and filled with a hearty medley of vegetables. Among my favorite south Indian dishes, though, were Kumar's flavored rices, especially the tart yellow lemon rice that popped with mustard seeds and crispy fried lentils.

I agreed with my Indian-born dinner guest that some of Spice's northern specialties, especially the over-creamed makhanis and mashed eggplant baingan bartha, were not quite as complex as those at his other favorite suburban Indian haunt, the modest Shere-E-Punjab in Media.

But despite these few mild complaints, Spice is clearly one of the suburbs' best all-around Indian kitchens, from its pliant tandoor-baked breads glistening with buttery ghee to the irresistibly decadent and refreshing glasses of creamy mango lassi. The menu also delivers some superb takes on bellwether meat dishes, including one of the moistest chicken tikka kebabs I've tasted, a boneless-breast version of the whole tandoori bird that was memorably tender from a night-long marinade in gingery yogurt.

The most interesting flavors worth seeking at Spice, however, remain the southern dishes. Among the best was the soulful lamb chettinad stew, which had a plume of sweet spice - cinnamon, clove, cardamom and star anise – threaded deep into its gravy. It lands on the palate and unfolds a fan of exotic layers, the richly steeped gaminess of the meat giving way to coconut-milk richness, earthy roasted lentils, a swirl of aromatics, and finally, a swelling tingle of chile warmth that lingers long after the meal is done. No matter what that big thermometer reads outside, you'll know you've just been on a flavorful trip to the Hot Zone.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Earth Bread + Brewery in Mount Airy. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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