Craig LaBan: Modern but timid Indian cuisine at upscale Veda

The Bagan Ka Salan at Veda, 1920 Chestnut St.

From the moment the glass doors glide open, it's clear Veda promises to be a different kind of Indian restaurant. The long and spacious room near Rittenhouse Square is colorful and dramatic. The walls are painted boldly with tandoori-red panels of graffiti street art traced with gentle phrases written in what looks like golden Hindi script: "Always speak sweet words."

(It's definitely not a spicier slogan like: "va-va-va-vindaloo!" Spice flickers too faintly for that from this upscale restaurant's fancy copper pans.)

An array of books lines the contemporary shelves behind the host stand in a literary nod to the Vedas, the ancient Hindi scriptures that inspired the restaurant's name. With coal-gray banquettes reaching back to a low-rise stage set with a community table, cone-shaped iron chandeliers dangling Gothicly overhead, and patrons sipping cardamom-scented cocktails (and beer) in the glass-enclosed front lounge, there's a dramatic sense of modern Mumbai now to the look of this Chestnut Street space once occupied by the Italian Le Castagne.

"I wanted to represent my generation and give a cool new face to Indian cuisine," said co-owner Inder Singh, 32, a South Jersey-raised native of Mumbai. "Something different from the mom-and-pop shops with buffet-style service that everyone already knows."

It's a welcome dose of ambition for a city that's lacked much in high-style Indian dining since the sad demise of Tashan, and Bindi before that. And I enjoyed my meals (albeit many years ago) at Coriander, the Voorhees restaurant also run by chef and co-owner Vipul Bhasin, which gives me hope.

Unfortunately, all the personality here was exhausted on the decor. Because not only is this menu fairly mundane in concept, from tandoori chicken to veggie samosas, Veda's crew has dialed back its seasoning so much for Rittenhouse Square - "we keep everything at the lowest spice level," says Singh - they've sacrificed the bold flavors and character that help make Indian cooking so thrilling to begin with.

The Calcutta pork ribs were tender and tasty in their sweet mango glaze, but they could easily have passed for Cantonese. Ditto for the Murmuri rolls, which were basically egg rolls stuffed with vaguely spiced minced chicken. When it came to a crispy cauliflower dish that's actually based on an Indo-Chinese classic (called lassoni here, but essentially a version of gobi Manchurian), Bhasin omits the elements of sour and spice that usually give the ginger tomato glaze its essential tangy zing.

Such spice levels may well be right in tune for the Indian-cooking novices that Veda may presume are its target audience in Center City. And, yes, there is far more to the intricately layered aromatics of Indian food than bald chili spice. But a certain level of heat is required simply for those aromatics to be heard. In some cases, a punch of spice is what's needed to unlock taste receptors I didn't even know I had - and suddenly the dishes sparkle.

There is very little sparkle on Veda's table. Just a few dishes I considered acceptable, flanked by more I found bland, mundane, and overpriced - especially when compared to more satisfying and authentic options in West Philly (Dana Mandi), the far western suburbs (Bangles, Devi, Indian Hut), the Northeast (Ateethi, Mallu Cafe), and South Philly (Chaat & Chai), not to mention closer options, like Indeblue and Ekta.

Most of these, of course, have far less ambience than Veda. But when you're paying $22 for a small pot of puny shrimp bobbing in a Goan coconut curry that lacks enough of the edge of noticeable mustard seed, fenugreek, and curry leaf in a good Goan curry, it seems like an unfavorable trade-off. A sharp server noticed that dish went largely uneaten and asked whether we didn't like it, which I appreciated. A manager then discounted it on the bill, but only by 50 percent, a half gesture that missed the larger point of an unsatisfied customer by appearing to charge us for just the few shrimp we'd eaten.

A sense of value here was never strong. But there were a few dishes I'd order again if I returned. I enjoyed the warm salad of crispy-chewy okra lightly fried beneath mango powder. The crunchy spinach chaat streaked with chutneys was also tasty, even if it was both soggier and less complex than the addictive version at Indeblue, the 13th Street standby that's a better choice if you're looking for a more upscale Indian experience.

The tandoori chef also delivered some perfectly good skewers - six tender lamb chops that actually had some flavor, a seekh kebab of minced lamb that showed some perky spice, and grilled tandoori shrimp that were significantly larger than their Goan-curried counterparts, their heat-charred yogurt marinade fragrant with cardamom and ajwain seeds that taste like caraway.

Too many other dishes, though, fell short. And in some cases the level of ingredients was underwhelming. The delicacy of whatever crab was used in the bready, air-hockey-puck-thin crab cakes tasted like a masala-scented fish patty. I might have liked the fish peri-peri, but even a good Goan marinade full of cilantro, cloves, and cumin couldn't cover up the soapy taste of bargain tilapia. I loved the idea of mixing seafood - baby shrimp, scallops, and squid - into a crunchy bhel chaat salad, but the overly simplified flavors here were missing the sour and tangy notes that usually collide with sweet and spice in a better chaat.

And when, I wonder, will restaurants finally stop referring to supermarket mushrooms such as shiitakes, criminis, and oysters as "wild"? The nomenclature was only one small issue. The intriguing idea to use mushrooms in Indian cooking was lost in an overly rich creamy korma gravy thickened with cashew paste.

Bhasin, who's a busy guy still running the kitchens at his other restaurants, Coriander and Indiya in Collingswood, says the creaminess on his menu can be deceptive. He's cut back on actual cream in favor of pureed nuts, onions, and other thickeners for texture. I simply wish he hadn't cut back on the spicing volume, too. I would have loved that big stewed lamb shank more if its cashew-yogurt gravy simply had some personality. Ditto for the lightly creamed lentil dal makhani.

All the chicken dishes, from on-the-bone tandoori to the boneless mala kebab, were fine but unexciting. A variety of flatbreads offered some unusual toppings, like onion and sage or goat cheese, but the naan, roti, and paratha themselves were still doughy.

There were a few more flavorful menu items I'd happily revisit. A dish of baby eggplants stewed Hyderabadi-style with sesame, peanuts, tamarind, and cumin was simply delicious. My table wasn't that into the skate that was stewed into the tamarind fish kari. It didn't have quite the funky sourness of the Kerala-style version I'd just tasted at Ateethi. But I have to give Bhasin credit for trying something a little bold and unusual. The lamb vindaloo was one dish that finally brought some spice, along with some smoke, and the vinegar tang of its Portuguese heritage. But just as I was about to shout "va-va-va-vinda ...!" I realized the portion was shockingly small for $22.

By dessert, when I found myself sifting through the coarse sediment and scalded milk that floated atop my masala chai, I was discouraged that Veda was not the exciting new face of Indian cuisine it promised to be. And then came the apple jalebi, a hot and crispy Indian funnel cake embedded with a tart Granny Smith apple and topped with a cold scoop of fragrant cardamom ice cream. Finally, I felt the urge to speak a sweet word: yum. Maybe Veda still has potential after all.

claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

www.philly.com/craiglaban

 

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Veda

1920 Chestnut St., Philadelphia; 267-519-2001, vedaphilly.com.

It's been a while since Center City had an Indian restaurant with decor as swanky as Veda, which replaced Le Castagne with bold street-art reds, sleek dark booths, chandeliers, and a bar with fusion-style potential. Unfortunately, the flavors have been dialed back to such timid blandness for a presumed mainstream audience the menu of fairly standard dishes lack enough character, complexity, and consistent execution to merit the prices.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Crispy spinach chaat; lassoni gobi; Calcutta pork ribs; lamb chops; tandoori shrimp; seekh kebab; baingan ka Salan eggplant; lamb vindaloo; apple jalebi. Dinner entrees, $14-$23.

DRINKS

A full bar offers some light and creative Indian accents to classic cocktails (tamarind shrub, cardamom syrup, etc.) and the drinks are enjoyable, if not necessarily profound. There are some good craft beers to pair with the meal - Bell's stout, Sly Fox Royal Weisse, Brooklyn Brewery's Sorachi Ace, but there's also a thoughtful wine list, with some Austro-Germanic whites (lots of grüner, Riesling, and gewürztraminer) and light reds (gamay, Ameleia's Unlitro) to pair with the exotic flavors.

WEEKEND NOISE

A manageable 83 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

IF YOU GO

Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Street parking only