I looked up from my gunpowder scallops the other day and was startled to see a man in gray sweats, thick glasses, and gray stubble trudge through the dining room at Tiffin Bistro.
I shouldn't have been completely surprised. The unfinished state of the restaurant that greeted us when we arrived at 12:30 p.m. - dirty rugs still hanging over the front railing, server sleepily wrangling the Dirt Devil between tables - made us wonder whether the place was even open for lunch at all. It was.
The sweat-suited visitor, though, was none other than Munish Narula, typically one of the most dapper characters to stride across Philadelphia's restaurant world. The man behind Tiffin, and arguably the Raja of Philly's Indian scene, is entitled to an occasional midday off from his usually natty prime-time self. (He was under the weather, he later told me on the phone.)
But part of Narula's genius is his ability to craft systems that allow his restaurants - five Tiffins and upscale Tashan - to ticktock seamlessly no matter who's at the door. His grizzled pre-shave cameo seemed symbolically apt to mark the one project, Tiffin Bistro, that doesn't yet seem to be tidily rolling along according to plan.
Is Tiffin Bistro one project too many?
The fact that my gunpowder scallops were shooting blanks, their thin crust lacking any noticeable heat, their bouncy centers overcooked, was just the latest indicator on a menu that is light on new inspiration and cooked with workmanlike lack of soul.
The service, supposedly an emphasis here meant to distinguish the Bistro from its more bare-bones Tiffin sibling, wasn't doing the kitchen any favors.
"Why don't I tell you what I don't recommend?" said my second waiter, unsolicited, setting a bright new standard for server forthrightness. "I'm not too big on the pepper crab. And I would not get the vegetable Seekh kebab, either."
At this rate, Narula was lucky to leave without a dagger in his back. Or, given the continuous crash of plates unceremoniously tossed into the bus tub as tables were cleared, a shard of dirty crockery.
But no one can say we didn't proceed without forewarning.
The crab, noted impossibly on the menu as "local Dungeness" (it's a West Coast crustacean), was simply a naked wad of briny shredded meat seasoned with pepper and a hint of curry leaf. The long, charred green Seekh kebab of ground veggies was actually really tasty. But it was a presentation abomination on the plate that evoked all the wrong images of a dog park: "Best to draw a veil," advised my guest, the first of us to find some words.
How can a restaurant group with such a solid track record suddenly deliver such a fine mess?
The notion of the Bistro's concept, to offer some less-common authentic flavors with a little more refinement than your standard takeout, may not entirely be off the mark in a region that has increasingly embraced the possibility of both high-end fusion (at Tashan) and street foods like dosas, chaat, and kati rolls.
Narula says he was also eager to get a foothold in South Philadelphia, and the former Kris space offered a natural opportunity for something with more polish.
But staffing is clearly an issue - perhaps partly resulting from a ripple effect triggered by the firing of Narula's head chef at fusion-centric Tashan. The Indian chef he'd previously hired to oversee quality control for the rest of the Tiffins and create the Bistro, Kirti Pant, suddenly absorbed Tashan under his purview, too.
As a result, the Bistro has an air of the unattended stepchild, with a menu executed by line cooks whose efforts seem adequate for takeout, but not much more.
There are definitely some worthy highlights, especially with the starters. The chaat of fried baby eggplants drizzled with yogurt and multihued chutneys is a novel twist on the crunchy-creamy-tart chaat salad craze that's finally taking hold locally. The cauliflower bezule, florets crisped in chickpea batter, then glazed in creamy coconut and mustard seed, are a hearty taste of South India.
The "Indian Sloppy Joe" sliders, in fact a street food called keema pau of chicken minced with green chiles and ginger, are worth coming back for. The baby calamari, simmered delicately in a creamy coconut chile-curry, is one of the more unusual squid preparations in town.
Some of this menu, however, is close enough to the standard Tiffin fare - including the silky saag paneer and garam-scented channa masala chickpeas, among my favorites - that perhaps it made more sense for the new location to simply add the newer dishes to an expanded Tiffin menu, rather than distinguish the Bistro as a unique concept on its own. The entrées, fairly priced between $12 and $16, are reasonable enough.
What must happen next, however, is far more care with the execution. The Malabar shrimp and Sri Lankan fish curry were overcooked. The whole-wheat paratha was admirably flaky. But the pile of masala-spiced pork belly mounded in the middle of the flat bread was unpleasantly chewy (Narula says the recipe is already being revised).
They might also reconsider the shortcut of precooking the chicken, which does no justice to such intriguing sauces as the Indochinese "chili" (tangy, sweet, and spicy), the Lababdar (more tomatoey than tikka), or the disappointingly bland Tellicherry, which had as little peppercorn pop as our gunpowder scallops had bang. (The side of zesty tamarind rice, however, was a triumph.)
By the time we settled into dessert - The pistachio kulfi ice cream, yes! Yet another molten chocolate cake, no! - another crash of plates tossed into the bus tub just behind us in the emptying room was our signal. Time to go.
But the question remains: Can Tiffin Bistro make the changes needed to bring us back?
Owner Munish Narula discusses Tiffin Bistro at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Serpico. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @CraigLaBan.