Still, even after the so-called vindaloo boom that he spawned, Narula - the New Delhi, India, native with the Wharton MBA - believed many diners still didn't get it, that the stereotypes persisted.
"We were meeting too many people who said, 'I don't like Indian food. It's too spicy,' " Narula said. "We wanted to take Indian food to a new level, make it more approachable. We throw the word 'sexy' around as a joke. But we do want to make it sexy."
Enter Tashan, Narula's ambitious, high-end, delightful - and yes, sexy - new modern Indian spot. By now, most of the city's food writers have weighed in with fawning declarations of love to Tashan. But their orgasmic reviews have also struck a hand-wringing note of worry: Can an upscale Indian restaurant like Tashan survive in Philadelphia?
There's been a great deal of chatter on the local food blogs about whether Philadelphians are "ready" for a restaurant like Tashan. As evidence that we are not, foodies point to Bindi, the Indian BYO owned by Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, which was shuttered several months ago.
"Is Tashan Too Good for Philadelphia?" asked Trey Popp on the blog Foobooz. He even suggested that Tashan's success or failure will serve as a "referendum" on whether Philadelphia "really deserves its reputation as a top-tier restaurant town." After an Indian friend predicted Tashan would last only six months, Popp wrote, "I hope she's wrong. But if she's right, what will we have to say for ourselves?"
Ahem. Yes, feel free to file this hyperbolic sort of soul-searching under First World Problems.
This is not to say that Tashan isn't wonderful. It is, and it's easily one of the most exciting openings in the past several years. Tashan will expose diners to sophisticated, unique flavors. It's already better, and more of a paradigm-shifter, than Bindi ever was.
But as several of my Indian friends have asked, is Tashan authentically "Indian"? Well, what is "Indian," anyway? India is an enormous subcontinent with more than a billion people and more than 2,000 ethnic groups. "There are so many different cuisines," said Narula.
For the most part, what you found for years on Indian menus were North Indian dishes, such as the creamier curries and tandoori. Slowly, you are seeing more diversity, featuring spicier South Indian cooking.
Tashan plays fast and loose with India's traditional cuisines, offering a fusion of Indian ingredients and French techniques. The chef is Haitian-born Sylva Senat, who worked at Jean-Georges and Aquavit in New York, before moving on to Buddakan in New York and then here. "We started to ask, 'Why do we need an Indian chef?' " Narula said. "We needed someone who would look at the food from a totally different perspective."
Senat, however, consults with Narula's longtime friend Sanjay Shende, who has more than two decades of experience in Indian kitchens in New Delhi and London and is listed on the menu as "Indian Master Chef."
The result of this collaboration is inventive and delicious. The palak tikka, a spinach patty with a paneer-pistachio center, is grilled on the traditional flat tawa but finished with a very French saffron-and-morel-mushroom cream sauce. Vermont quail is wood-smoked in the northern desert Rajasthani style and served memorably in a waft of aromatic smoke. The gol-gappa are tasty, crispy little puffs filled with spiced potato and topped with mint-cilantro water. More traditional, Tashan's rendition of the chicken biryani was one of the best I've ever tasted.
I especially appreciated Tashan's wine list of interesting, full-bodied, aromatic whites and light- to medium-bodied reds that work well with notoriously difficult-to-pair Indian. About the only thing that fell flat at Tashan was the very rushed pacing of the small-plates meal, which cost more than $200 for two with wine, tip and no dessert.
One stereotype that Narula has pushed against is that Indian always means spicy - the spices here are more about complexity than heat.
But I love very spicy Indian food. So after my meal at Tashan, I was very excited to seek out less costly - and more spicy - everyday Indian options at some old favorites and new finds.
It had been a while, for instance, since I ate at Tiffin's bitter rival in Fishtown, Ekta, for which I've always had a slight preference. After eating the super-spicy, sweat-bead-inducing kadai paneer and its mellower, creamy, soul-satisfying chicken korma, Ekta still gets the nod.
I also went further afield. At Mallu Café in Bustleton, I ate several authentic dishes from Kerala, in southern India. The highlights were the avial, a spicy vegetable medley in coconut sauce, and the chicken Varatharacha curry, with a thick, deep-reddish brown gravy and red chilies, providing a richer spice than most curries you'll find.
In Cherry Hill's Woodcrest Shopping Center, I discovered a gem in Khyber Indian Fusion. The delicious shrimp and fish curry here is in the tangy, light Goan-style, and I can't rave enough about the lollipop chicken's mingling of fresh coriander, garlic and sweet-sour spices.
My other favorite in South Jersey is IndeBlue, the only Indian restaurant in the region recommended to me by Narula that he didn't own. Unsurprisingly, IndeBlue chef Rakesh Ramola originally worked at Tiffin.
IndeBlue's menu is similar to many other Indian restaurants, but Ramola's skill and his use of fresh ingredients brings it a level above the usual takeout fare. The elegantly spiced lamb dakshini is memorable, as is his baingan bharta, or smoked eggplant in tomato/onion sauce.
Narula said he admired Ramola for having similar ambitions about Indian cooking. "We need more people like him to elevate the food," Narula said, "to show that Indian food can be nice and it can be contemporary."