Philadelphia Chutney Company offers healthy menu but is short on spice

Philadelphia Chutney Company owner Nirav Mehta (left), with executive chef Lokesh (center) and partner Baldev Singh (right).
Philadelphia Chutney Company owner Nirav Mehta (left), with executive chef Lokesh (center) and partner Baldev Singh (right).
Posted: October 28, 2010

Everyone I know who visits southern India comes back with a taste for the region's street food called dosa. It's a paper-thin crepe filled with a spicy potato filling.

Barring a trip into Manhattan, Philadelphia dosa lovers were left to their dosa memories.

No longer so. Nirav Mehta and partner Baldev Singh (who owns two northern Indian restaurants outside the city) took the concept and created Philadelphia Chutney Company. The first location just opened off Rittenhouse Square, and more of these healthy, inexpensive fast-food operations are planned for some university locations.

The process for dosa takes time. First, you soak rice and lentils overnight. The next step is to carefully grind the mixture with just enough water to make a batter that sits for 24 hours to slightly ferment. This is what gives the dosa and its pancake version, uttapa, its lovely "sourdough" characteristic.

Cooking the batter requires skill, which is one reason that Mehta and Singh brought in trained chefs from southern India. Dosa can be made on a tava, a slightly concave oval generally made of cast iron or stone, but for higher volume a flattop griddle is used.

A ladle of the batter is poured onto the hot surface and smoothed in an ever-expanding circle to create a perfectly round, paper-thin crisp about the size of the cafeteria tray it is served on. Your choice of filling is spooned on top, and the dosa is folded over it.

Uttapa is the same batter but cooked as a pancake. The texture reminds me of injera, the Ethiopian bread. Since there is fusion going on here, I could see this going from savory to a dessert with some fruit and yogurt.

The Sambar (93 cents . . . for goodness' sake, make it a dollar. There isn't even a cent key on the keyboard anymore!) was my favorite dish, and it was a great side to the dosa. This soup had everything that is wonderful about southern Indian cuisine - the flavors were expertly layered, a hallmark of this cuisine.

The obvious use of curry leaf and murungakkai, or "drumstick tree," solidified the authenticity. The curry adds a base flavor similar to garlic and onion, while the drumstick imparts a slightly bitter tang.

I found the Classic Masala Dosa ($6) to be surprisingly bland. Southern Indian cuisine is typically quite spicy, and this potato mixture lacked any heat.

I asked Mehta if the spices had been toned down for American palates. Apparently, this is not a new comment, and he is responding by developing a way to order according to personal preference - mild, medium and hot. I like that idea.

Some of the fusion flavors just don't work. For example, the Calamata Olives, Tomato, Roasted Onion, Arugula and Goat Cheese ($7) dosa became one soggy mess, and there was much too much goat cheese.

The Smoked Paneer, Spinach, Jack Cheese and Balsamic Roasted Onions ($8) combination worked better, but I'd like to see some more recipe development that showcases the training of these chefs and produces stellar dishes with layered flavors such as the sambar.

There are also a variety of wraps, but these are uninspired, and really aren't even fusion. I was unimpressed with the Fresh Mozzarella, Roasted Peppers and Arugula with tomato-basil dressing ($5).

I'm wondering if the wraps wouldn't be more interesting if the standard whole-wheat tortilla were exchanged for one of the uttapas.

And certainly, I'd prefer more southern Indian influences in the fillings such as chickpeas or eggplant.

One of my favorite samplings was the Gobi Manchurian ($6.50), a fried-cauliflower appetizer. The cauliflower took on a meaty characteristic in the frying, and the sweet-sour sauce makes it McNugget familiar. Kids would like this if you didn't tell them what it was.

You can't have a Chutney Company without chutneys. The daily offerings are cilantro, curry mango and coconut. For the most part, I found them lacking the fresh, bright and spicy flavor of Indian chutneys. The one that I truly did enjoy was the coconut, which was seasoned with a blend of dry Chinese chili, fresh ginger, mustard seeds, curry leaves, cilantro and asafetida.

There are a variety of bottled beverages, but I wanted to try the Masala Chai ($2.50)., but again, it seemed to lack the intensity of flavor I was expecting.

I like the idea of a kids menu that offers simple, single flavors such as Jack cheese ($4, with avocado $6), but the Smoked Paneer ($6) might be better received if they called it paneer "chicken" fingers.

This is a completely vegetarian menu. The substitute tuna and chicken is a soy/seitan blend that is seasoned in-house. I enjoyed the chicken, and it passed the carnivore palate. The tuna seems just odd - it would be strange to have real tuna in this cuisine, much less fake tuna.

The Chutney Company has been open slightly less than a month, and continues to be tweaked, so I am reluctant to rate it. Rate it I must, so two forks with the acknowledgment that there are improvements being made to create varied spice levels and develop the recipes. All in all, it's a good concept to introduce a new ethnic dish to the city, and the fact that it is healthy fast food is all the better for our wallets and our waistlines.

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