Within eyeshot of City Hall, this elegant Indian restaurant continues to impress with its creativity and aesthetic appeal

by Brian Freedman

When Tashan opened last fall, it heralded a new era of Indian cooking in Philadelphia. Sure, the city has seen a serious uptick in the number of restaurants featuring the foods of the subcontinent over the past several years. And sure, many of them deliver tremendous amounts of pleasure in generally casual and reasonably priced ways.

But Tashan was different, a step toward a more refined, creative Indian dining experience. Under the watchful eye of chef Sylva Senat, the team in the shimmering open kitchen here made a splash with its creative interpretations of Indian dishes that, for many of us, had grown as familiar and uninspired as they once were exotic. And all of it was experienced in a space with sex appeal to spare, the flatteringly dim lighting and smartly chosen touches of exotic decor marrying well with the more modern aesthetic of the warm-toned space.

Now, nearly a year into its tenure at 777 South Broad Street, we decided to see how it was maturing. The answer: pretty well, if not quite as exciting as it was in the beginning.
In general, it was difficult to find fault with the experience as a whole. Servers were well informed but never pedantic, enthusiastic about the food but not cloying. Happy hour, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., offers some seriously great deals. And with a wine list as eclectic and interesting as Tashan’s, not to mention their range of well-considered cocktails, opportunities for exploration and all kinds of fermented fun abound.

The menu is as appealing as it’s always been. Now that the foods and flavors of India are reasonably familiar to most Philadelphia restaurant lovers, it only makes sense to have a spot like Tashan, where the standards are tweaked or reinterpreted in new and invigorating ways.

My main concern, however, is that flavors that last year were almost electric in their clarity seem to have become more muted, less bracing. Baingan bhartaa, an emblematic smoky eggplant dish that’s such a linchpin of so many vegetarian Indian menus, lacked much depth beneath the smokiness. Turmeric, cumin, coriander, tomatoes, and more provided a nice aromatic counterpoint to the smoke, but it all needed something to brighten it up. It was good, put simply, but not great, not riveting.

Interestingly enough, the more mundane-sounding petite vegetable sariya was a greater success. Baby zucchini, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and more arrived blackened in places from the tandoor, tender yet still crunchy, and sweet-smoky in perfect harmony. They’re marinated in a beautiful blend of ginger, garlic, black pepper, and soy sauce, and the result is nuanced without ever being overwhelming. With a quick trip through the vivid green chutney, and the occasional forkful of organic paneer to break it all up, they were difficult to stop snacking on.

Malai kofta lollipops hit all the right flavors—the house-mixed nine-spice blend struck an orchestral sense of balance (helmed, in this sense, by the flavors of nutmeg), and the onion-rich, tomato and coconut-creamy sauce was an addictive wonder. The potato and paneer orbs were a bit on the gummy side, which was too bad, because the flavors were stellar.

Shrimp curry, Chef Senat explained to me, aimed at the more homestyle, traditional end of the spectrum, and it achieved that goal with vigor. The key here was the shellfish stock that Senat crafts every two days: Its dense richness and depth anchored the entire dish in a way that was at once comforting and exciting. The shrimp were cooked beautifully, snappy against the teeth yet tender to chew, and the sauce, a beautiful burnished umber color, provided a fantastic de facto accompaniment to the bread basket, a bountiful selection of garlic-onion-cilantro naan, whole wheat roti, and Peshawari naan, sweet with its center of coconut, nuts, and golden raisins. Each one brought out a different aspect of that curry when dragged through it, and the resulting tour of flavors was intriguing and exceptionally enjoyable.

Desserts, especially the well-crafted sorbets—I particularly enjoyed the intensity of the raspberry and the surprise of the apple and wild Indian cinnamon—continue to end things nicely here. And though the 12-spice masala donuts fell just a bit short (the sweetness overwhelmed the aromatics of the spices, and the cardamom syrup and chocolate mousse sauce accompaniments never sprang to life) they were rooted in great ideas, which leads me to believe they’ll continue to improve.

Tashan, regardless, continues to impress with its creativity and aesthetic appeal. And although it seems to lack some of the same explosive excitement that defined it early on, it remains a very good restaurant.

777 S. Broad Street

Philadelphia Life Magazine