The tabla master rapped his hand drums with a finger-popping flurry, and the sitarist answered back, each pluck of his long-necked strings bending across the room with a sultry twang.
The live music, rising from the two men seated on the floor at Indeblue, lent an exotic resonance to the gold-and-plum-color restaurant as big groups of young Indian professionals filed toward their tables, servers arrived with chili-spiked lychee martinis, and the aroma of grilled kebabs settled over us with a heady perfume.
We'd stumbled into the thick of Restaurant Week on 13th Street, and a jam-packed Indeblue - the stylish new Center City outpost of the Collingswood standby - was humming along like a Bollywood reverie in Midtown Village.
A complimentary trio of little soups set the opening tone high, with little shooters of corn broth dotted with curry leaf pesto, cardamom-spiced chicken and mushroom, and a cuminy lentil puree of mulligatawny. Chef-owner Rakesh Ramola then followed with a series of dishes that ably walked the fine line between authentic flavors and modern fusion inspirations - an impulse he has been more reluctant to pursue with his more traditional Collingswood clientele.
Refreshing chaat salads were among my favorite starters, a bed of fryer-crisped spinach leaves drizzled with house-made yogurt and sweet-sour chutneys among the most addictive. I also loved the crunchy pastry balloons of dahi puri, each filled with chickpeas, chutneys, and avocado, instead of the usual potato.
Beautifully seared scallops dusted with turmeric and chili came in a South Indian coconut milk infused with musky curry leaf and lit with rasam powder's gingery, fenugreek punch. Pakora-battered vegetables were tangled with "Hakka" noodles, then glazed in a dark chili-soy shine that reflected the salty, sour, sweet, and spicy fusion of the current Indo-Chinese craze. A pair of roasted fresh Kashmiri chilies called degi mirch, stuffed with housemade paneer and sweet onions then set over a smoky tomato puree, are Ramola's tribute to the long hots of South Philly. And those peppers mean business.
An unceremoniously brown bowl of seafood moilee was as traditional as it gets, the seafood in rust-colored onion gravy flecked with shredded coconut and mustard seeds, set next to a tangy yellow mound of lemon rice. But the freshness of the ingredients inside - tender, plump shrimp, big lumps of sweet crab - helped elevate it far above the mundane.
Was this the real Indeblue? The cooking was so fine this busy Tuesday night, I almost didn't recognize it from my previous weekend dinner.
To be sure, we had a handful of highlights then, too. There was a duo of unusual samosas, including one unexpected oddity stuffed with braised pork, tamarind barbecue sauce, and a creamy blue cheese dip (really) that I actually liked. A mound of fragrant biryani rice was studded with soft morsels of lamb. The lollipop lamb chops, meanwhile, were sublimely tender, their tandoor-charred meat singed with smoky garlic and mace.
But something was amiss with a number of other plates. A big hunk of braised pork shank vindaloo had too much gristle and bone for $24, the gravy lacking much tangy-spice punch, and what meat there was was a little dry. The bowls of more familiar Mughlai chicken dishes - creamy chicken korma, tomatoey chicken tikka - were slightly overcooked, with gravies that had formed a skin from sitting in the kitchen. The side dishes of vegetarian items like lentil dal makhani (its gravy too thin) and paneer-stuffed squash (its gravy too thick) were too puny to merit $8 or $9.
The servers were friendly and enthusiastic, as on all my visits, but also careless. One dropped a creamy curry on the table so it sloshed out the low side of a bowl with a ridiculous lopsided design. Even more annoying was the ill-shaped modern flatware that kept falling off plates and that was so skinny it left us scooping the saucers with the equivalent of a baby spoon. The cleverly Indianized lemon shandy with Kingfisher beer was unpleasantly sour.
Such shortcomings add a genuine note of caution to what otherwise should be an easy two-bell recommendation. Ramola and his partner and wife, Heather, have crafted a moody urban cousin to their Collingswood home base, with the plus of a bar that, aside from its shandy misfire, offers fun, Indian-infused cocktails, and a fair selection of spice-friendly wines.
More convincing of its virtues, though, was a lengthy list of other satisfying dishes from a previous visit that suggest my second (of three) meals was the anomaly. A tender chicken kebab was electric from a gingery basil-mint marinade. Chicken Reshmi kebab, marinated in chickpea flour, green chilies, and yogurt, came with sweet mango chutney enriched by coconut. The vegetarian thali platter was a fantastic lunch value with spot-on channa masala, creamy veggie korma, and gingery eggplant baingan bharta.
A bacon-wrapped kebab of ground bison with apple chutney was one nouveau Indian disappointment - the skewered meat too dry and crumbly. But Ramola redeemed himself with the naan pizza, a grilled flatbread topped with goat cheese, mozzarella, house-made rose petal marmalade, and a healthy shake of chili flakes - each bite at once creamy, exotic, sweet, and spicy.
A vivid mango panna cotta ringed with a saffron-tinged rabri cream sealed my approval almost at the moment the sitarist and tabla master took a well-earned break. As though on cue, Ramola appeared, all smiles beneath his giant white toque as he bowed graciously to guests.
Was he there, I wondered, for my faulty second meal? It may well have been the difference.
Chef Rakesh Ramola talks about Indeblue at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan will resume his online chats at 2 p.m. Oct. 22 at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.