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A Culinary Adventure at Cafe Spice in Old City

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Chef Paul There was a time once when my culinary adventures rarely extended beyond anything more dangerous than hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I wasn’t a picky eater; I was downright terrified of food. My mother used to slather pork chops in marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese and tell me it was chicken just to get me to eat it. I wish I was lying. 

Needless to say, culinary enlightenment came slowly, usually through alcohol-fueled bravado and the general realization that when given a chance, a lot of those once-foreign looking foods tasted pretty good. As I built courage, my expeditions became more daring and bold, tasting cheeses I previously wouldn’t have stood in the same room with and finally tackling raw fish. Before long, I’d try just about anything.

Except Indian. Lord help me, anything but curry infused lamb and exotic spices. 

But, as they say, fortune favors the bold. It was high time I navigated these treacherous waters of exotic cuisine, and I put my faith in the hands of chef Paul Sankaralingam, owner and executive chef of Café Spice in Old City.

First off, Chef Paul’s got a pretty great story. He came over from India in 2000 and began working at Café Spice in Old City, starting as a bus boy and climbing the ranks. He left in 2007 and purchased the location at The Shops at Liberty Place. Last December, he purchased the Old City location, where he’s residing now.

Masala DosaI decided quickly that the best course of action would be to let chef Paul order for me. I clearly had no idea what I was doing. And I best be up front right now and admit I have a long standing feud with curry. We don’t get along. I can smell a curry dish from a mile away and my stomach drops. This was going to be terrifying.

We started off with a short stack of ragada patties ($7), an interesting potato patty served over some surprisingly mild curried chickpeas and a delicate mint cutney. And it was good. The first bite gives off an initial sweetness that quickly gives way to a kick of spice, a theme I would soon find resonating through most of the dishes I’d try this evening. The presentation was beautiful, as well.

The other appetizer we tried, boti kabab (8.25), was also surprisingly mild and tasty. The lamb was rich and tender, paired nicely with a cilantro paste and pickled onion that danced playfully on the palate. Another gorgeous presentation. So I was off to an inspired start on my first real delve into Indian cuisine.

Chef Paul arranged a trio of popular dishes to sample as entrees, served with aromatic basmati rice and buttery naan bread (if you’ve never tried this stuff, do so immediately). All the entrees were served in thick, flavorful sauces. Pretty interesting. First up was the delicious chicken tikka masala (15), which I understand is very popular. I can see why. Chunks of chicken and pieces of almond marinate in a fantastic tomato sauce, seasoned with coriander, cumin, garam masala and fenugreek. The combination is curry, for those keeping score at home. But this is a curry I can dig. It was really tasty. There’s a great balance of savory and spiciness in this dish.

Crab cakesOur second entrée, baingan bharta (14), I was not so crazy about. The dish is vegetarian, consisting of smoked eggplant cooked with onion, tomato, fenugreek and garlic. There is a lack of substance without a proper protein, leaving a somewhat mushy consistency. The garlic is overpowering. Two bites and your breath feels three pounds heavier.

The last entrée, lamb pasanda (16), was a great finish. The marinated lamb practically melts as soon as it hits your tongue. The sauce is wonderful, spicy (of course) but flavored with cashews, almonds and saffron to give it an interesting, wintery kick. Our meal was capped with pistachio kulfi, a traditional frozen treat not unlike ice cream but with condensed milk instead of cream. It has a buttery flavor. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hats off to Chef Paul and Café Spice for giving me an unforgettable forage into Indian cuisine. I feel so bad about all those terrible things I’ve said about their food. Maybe curry’s not such a bad thing afterall.

If you’re looking to try something new or you’re already a fan, check out Café Spice for an excellent experience. I know I’ll be back.

 

Ready for more Indian food? Philly2Philly.com recommends you try out the following restaurants for superb Indian cuisine (click for a review): 

Lovash at 3rd and South Sts

Desi Chaat House at 42nd and Baltimore

Bindi on 13th by Sansom Sts

Address: 

35 S 2nd Street

Phila., PA 19106

215.627.6273

Hours: 

Lunch Hours (Friday-Sunday only)

Fri 11:30AM-3PM

Sat-Sun 12:00PM-3:30PM

 

Dinner Hours

Mon-Thu 5:00PM-10:30PM

Fri 5:00PM-11:30PM

Sat 4:00PM-11:30PM

Sun 4:00PM-10:30PM