'Do you like robotics?" is a question I don't hear often in restaurants.
Then again, out in the Dosa Belt of Philly's far western 'burbs, a growing hub for the region's many Indian-born tech workers, it may be normal to encounter a fellow with an epic beard (and baseball cap) who chats up your table with the jovial charm of a restaurant host, and then turns to the youngsters with talk of sport: "So, would you be interested in joining my son's robotics team?"
My city kids had their fingers too tangled up in a steam-puffed balloon of puri bread at Bangles Indian Cuisine in Downingtown to offer a reply, their lips tingling from the heat of a channa stew. But I admit: Robotics is not yet among my family's many interests. The pursuit of great Indian food is more the kind of sport that inspires us to hour-plus road trips. When passing through North Jersey, a detour to Oak Tree Road in Iselin is a must.
Closer to Philly, the go-to zone for genuine Indian flavors lies increasingly along the Route 202 corridor to the west, especially Exton, around which several newcomers (Ruchi, Nala, Biryani King, Paradise Biryani Pointe) have joined previous favorites (Devi, Indian Hut, Dosa Hut).
Bangles, opened in February by a South Indian couple with experience in the local IT sector, Santosh Ravindran and his wife, Priya Vijay, serves that audience with a talented young chef and a more upscale setting.
True, the bar for "ambience" has not been high in the suburban Indian realm. But this space, with its cushy chairs, granite tables, rich fabrics, and curry-toned decor, is a big improvement over the mattress store that once occupied this back corner of the Ashbridge Shopping Complex. The couple even hired an architect in India for the design, though a large banquet room - walled off inside the dining room - makes the remaining L-shaped seating area feel like an afterthought.
Then again, it turns out our friend the robotics coach was not a host, but a tipsy customer who'd wandered over while scouting the banquet room for his own future party. Maybe Bangles does tap a banquet need.
But the real reason to come is chef Dhirendran "Dhiru" Paulraj, 30, a native of Tamil Nadu who has the native touch and creativity to meld genuine South Indian flavors with novel American twists.
His fusion dishes just might earn Bangles a wider mainstream audience, from a pureed sweet corn soup vivid with curry leaves and coconut, to chile-dusted scallops with cumin-agave sauce and crispy lotus chips. Or how about a creamy puree of kale paneer (instead of the usual spinach)? It's saag reimagined for the smoothie set. Hiring only stiff young Americans as servers here, though, is one awkward note in Bangles' bid to cross some borders.
Paulraj's takes on traditional flavors, especially his dosas, are what really generate this menu's resonance. I agree with my completely obsessed pal Jeff that the rava dosa is hauntingly good, its semolina-rice batter scented with curry leaves and ginger and griddled into a lacy crisp around roasty threads of toasty onions.
A more familiar dosa, rolled into an oversize crepe around curry-spiced masala potatoes, is unusual because its cuminy batter is tinted green with cilantro, chilies, and ginger. The spongier crepe for the paneer and peas variation is wrapped snug like a burrito around a garam masala-onion-spiced stuffing of grated fresh cheese.
The kitchen's weakness is with more Northern-inflenced tandoori specialties. Our fish and lamb seekh kebab were terribly overcooked. Yet the chicken tikka was exceptional, its meat marinated in yogurt, lime juice, and mustard oil.
But it wasn't nearly as good as the zippy, tender morsels of curry leaf-fried chicken, which reminded me of the Chennai dish known as Chicken 65.
Paulraj's modern touch upgraded the classic dahi vada, doughnut-shaped lentil fritters glazed in raita yogurt artfully traced with a colorful web of mint and tamarind chutneys. His steamed idly dumplings were pure tradition, perfect fluffy white disks to soak in the spicy South Indian soul of an earthy, boldly fired sambar stew.
A firm heat, tuned down by default just a shade for non-Indian patrons, is nonetheless omnipresent, even in the biryani rice platters, whose exceptionally airy, Hyderabadi-style pilafs are second only to the dosas as draws. ("It's spicy down there!" sweated my guest, digging to the bottom of a colorful and fragrant rice mound to discover a vegetarian stew that was dark and intensely seasoned.) A luxuriously creamy malai kofta also hummed with heat, accented by the lightness of its veggie cheese fritters, made partially with parsnip.
There were plenty of worthy meat dishes, too. A Chettinad chicken wove 22 spices into a coconut-based curry with poppy seeds and ginger. Lamb pepper fry (Paulraj's favorite) brought the double-fisted intensity of a dark fennel-and-clove-spiced gravy paired with the sour zing of lemon rice. I'd order the bony goat sukha again, if only for the flaky paratha bread, which came crinkled onto the plate like a croissant rose.
After such a feast, I could not embark on a Nutella-smeared dosa. But other sweets were irresistible, from classic rasamalai patties soaked in cardamom-scented cream, to Paulraj's fusion flan tinted with fennel. Most striking, though, was the halwa saffron payasam, a carrot dessert made instead with beets, whose crimson shreds held an earthy sweetness that was a natural fit for the exotic spice.
Bangles can surely satisfy any authentic South Indian craving. But Paulraj manages, quite remarkably, to make something as boldly offbeat as beets taste like they belong.
BANGLES INDIAN CUISINE
889 E. Lancaster Ave., Ashbridge Shopping Complex, Downingtown, 610-269-9600; banglesindiancuisine.com
The rapidly growing hub of Indian-born tech workers in Philadelphia's far western suburbs has generated half a dozen authentic new restaurants this last year, and Bangles aims to serve that audience, plus attract mainstream diners, with a little more upscale polish. The all-American service staff can be stiff, and the big banquet room gives the smaller dining area an odd feel. But creative young chef Dhirendran "Dhiru" Paulraj has the skill to create both worthy fusion dishes and genuine spice-charged South Indian specialties so good, it's hard not to over-dosa it.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Corn and curry leaf soup; lotus root scallops; Vidalia onion or vegetable pakora; dahi puri; idly sambar; dahi vada; curry leaf fried chicken; lasuni gobi; tandoori chicken; Chettinad chicken curry; goat sukha; lamb pepper fry; channa batura; malai kofta; Hyderabadi biryani; onion rava dosa; paneer and peas dosa; moong lentil dosa; rasmalai; red beet halwa saffron payasam.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable 81 decibels, aided by decent table space. (Ideal: 75 decibels or less.)
BYOB Bring spice-friendly beverages: white wines with off-dry tendencies (riesling, chenin blanc) or beers that are either crisp (lagers, pilsners) or sour and complex (bretty, funky saisons).
IF YOU GO Lunch Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, until 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, until 10 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $13 to $19. Three-course tasting, $29.
All major cards.
Free parking lot.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bardot.