It shouldn’t have been as unexpected a sight as it was, but the entirety of the composition was almost jarring. A couple, both in what had to be their late 60s, sat at their table one recent evening at Tashan, sipping vividly colored cocktails and cooing over a tableful of food. Modern Indian music pulsed in the background, like some kind of subcontinental Thievery Corporation. The gleaming open kitchen, all silvery and bright, stood sentinel over a dark, appealing dining area.
At first glance, Tashan looks like the kind of place that would win over a younger crowd with its entire M.O.—the music, the crepuscular sexiness of the space, the iPad beverage lists. So what was going on with that couple up front?
The answer: They were on to something. Tashan picks up the torch from the departed Bindi and runs with the (shouldn’t-be-revolutionary-at-this-point) idea that Indian food in Philly can be more modern and creative than it’s given a chance to be.
Executive Chef Sylva Senat is just the man to do it. His resume is impeccable (Buddakan, Aquavit, Tiffin, and more), and the urban and urbane nature of his path is brilliantly brought to bear on the menu here on S. Broad Street. Tashan’s owner also has impressive bona fides: Munish Tarula, of Tiffin fame, is a local food revolutionary in his own right.
So much is so good here. Tandoori shrimp, a usually humble preparation of reliably overcooked shrimp and fairly monochromatic seasoning, was shown real respect. Popping-tender and kissed with smoke, these savory pink commas were the beneficiaries of a hung-yogurt crust and made maple-y by the addition of herbal fenugreek. The flavors were both familiar and bracingly exotic. The tandoors were also used brilliantly for pink-centered lamb chops mysterious with Kashmiri paprika and protected by a papaya glaze complicated with mustard oil and honey.
Goat cheese taftaan sang too, the unctuous, paste-textured chèvre given snap on its base of onion-seed bread and full-throttle excitement by its crown of crystallized-ginger-flecked raisin-pineapple murabba. Think of this as an Indian, goat version of Brie with marmalade, but a thousand times better and more interesting, and without the necessity of going to your mother-in-law’s house to have it.
When working with otherwise familiar dishes, Senat brings his keen sense of creativity to the task and typically shows them in a new, unexpected light. Chicken vindaloo, that hoary warhorse of Indian dining in Philadelphia, has been deconstructed and reassembled here in an altogether intriguing way. Organic chicken sausage sings its own aria of fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, onion and more, its throne of Bombay-style bhel chaat snapping and crackling with each bite, the house-made chili paste a searing riff on Sriracha but infinitely more complex. Even a humble sweet potato impressed, all smoky from the clay oven and cumin, all tangy and high-toned from the mint-cilantro-tamarind anointment.
There were occasional misses, like the pleasant but underwhelming gol-gappa, the gently tingling potatoes tucked inside the durum shell less than riveting even with a splash of mint-cilantro water. Palak tikki, a spinach patty scented with screw pine and filled with a pistachio-paneer center, should have been more balanced, the saffron-morell cream sauce nearly obliterating the other flavors.
But those were rare missteps from a kitchen that is on its way to becoming one of the most intriguing in the city. Its work is framed nicely with a cocktail program by Beverage Director and Sommelier David Costanzo; many of the drinks incorporate the spices and flavors of India and harness them to mightily successful ends. The dhoom in particular is among the most deceptively simple and food-friendly cocktails I’ve had recently: Macallan 12 and peach brulee was a seamless no-brainer. And the wine list is intelligently composed, especially given the challenges of the menu.
Turns out that older couple knew exactly what they were doing. Food this creative and well-executed should never be age-specific. I’m looking forward to watching Tashan grow and evolve. It’s already an exciting, challenging and damn-well-needed addition to the local dining scene.