A stylish spot for Indian cuisine
Lanky Munish Narula strides past the tandoori-hot colors of his Old City dining room buttoned down in a suit of business gray. If he has the serious demeanor of a Wall Street financier, it's because he was exactly that in another life, a Wharton MBA honing his chops for the eventual grand plan.
Now well into his new existence as the owner of Karma, he touts the virtues of cold aloo papri chaat salad, marinated cauliflower phool, and roasted salmon dunked in spicy raita. He can also be overheard musing about the many meanings of karma - not simply the catchy name for his restaurant, but the sense of destiny and coming of age that he hopes imbues his new adventure.
Will it be Narula's fate to create one of the nation's first successful Indian chain restaurants? A Nasdaq listing and a portfolio of 50 Karmas? A Denny's for the samosa set?
"Never say never," says Narula, who was, in fact, a regional manager for Denny's after earning a degree in hospitality from Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
Narula's dreams are already coming true, with a second Karma set to open in Mount Holly and plans for a third in Lancaster. Judging from recent meals at his old original Karma, already a whopping five months old, I'd say Narula has a chance.
Stylish but unstuffy, Karma occupies a comfortable niche between the inexpensive buffets in University City that have ill-defined Indian food for so many diners as lowbrow cheap eats and the chic polish of Cafe Spice, the high-quality New York chain that caters to Old City's martini-swilling yuppies.
Karma has a lunch buffet, but it is classy, with creamy lentil dal, silky spinach curry, and hot-pink drumsticks of moist tandoori chicken mounded inside shiny copper chafing dishes. The room isn't nearly as sleek as Cafe Spice, but it has a homespun style nonetheless, eschewing the usual elephant-and-chandelier motifs for a contemporary look. The chile-red and curry-yellow walls are covered with abstract murals by local artists.
And this being Old City, Karma makes a nice mango-tini - though its fairly priced wine list is also worth a look, especially for a nice shiraz.
Most important, I like much of Karma's food. It is authentic enough to attract large tables of Indians of all generations, but also accessible enough for the mainstream Center City crowd.
If you want it spicy, they'll give you a Goan vindaloo that will make you weep. The chicken version was topped with cautionary crimson chile peppers fried to an incendiary crisp. But most of Karma's cooking is judiciously spiced, focusing instead on good ingredients and an array of sauces that offer a variety of vivid flavors.
The butter chicken is one of the better chicken curries I've eaten, its tender morsels of dark meat (which our waitress proudly stressed) sauced in a buttery tomato bisque that unfurled with tang and spice and the underlying sweetness of jaggery palm sugar. The South Indian-style prawns moilee brought tender, butterflied crustaceans in an earthy yellow coconut-based curry that popped with tiny mustard seeds.
I also loved the salmon raita, a thick piece of fish submerged in a refreshing bowl of cool yogurt tinged with mint and spice. It was one of a few dishes that Narula says his chef, Dominic Sarkar, created for the restaurant.
Another winner is the hara bara kabob, morsels of chicken sizzling on a platter tinted an unearthly shade of leprechaun green by a marinade of cilantro and mint. The meat was moist and succulent but, with a dab of citrusy mint chutney, it became positively electric. Set alongside vibrant red butter curry, it looked like Christmas in Calcutta.
Some of Sarkar's creations were simply whimsical, such as the simple potato-cauliflower dish cheekily dubbed "Bend It Like Karma." Others, though, fell flat. Karma's odd take on Scotch eggs, which wrapped a hard-cooked egg inside a softball of ground lamb seekh kabob, was too complicated for its own good. The egg was rubbery and the ground meat overwhelmed by cardamom.
We were also disappointed that the kitchen was out of "brandy twinkle," a special chutney for the crabcake, but it wouldn't have helped. The mashed-potato-thickened cake tasted like a fish-flavored samosa.
There were a few other disappointments. The breads could have been more supple and fresh (though the mint-dusted whole-wheat parantha was a delight). The okra kurkuri was neither crispy nor cut into straws as advertised on the menu.
And during a final midweek visit, it seemed as if nothing we ordered was in stock - the brandy twinkle, the racks of lamb, the green peas with yogurt, the tandoori-cooked cauliflower phool, even the wine we chose was unavailable.
The desserts were also weak, an assortment of standards (cakey gulab jamun, a doughnutlike pastry; thin rice pudding) and not-so-standards (cinnamon-scented flan) that had me opting instead for another cup of chai.
Karma easily compensates for its slips, though, with accommodating service (suggestions for a fine, alternative wine) and a solid command of the basic Northern Indian culinary canon. The chana peshawari rises on a base of sweet onions and tender chickpeas that pop between the teeth, releasing an herby trail of cilantro and spice. The black lentil dal called Maharaja Punjab turns creamy from eight hours cooked over a slow fire. The roasted eggplant curry (baingan bharta) is exceptionally light and fluffy, punctuated by the snap of fresh green peas.
And then there is the lovely lamb roganjosh, a classic stew that brings tender chunks of yogurt-tenderized meat in a deeply steeped gravy perfumed with ginger and cardamom. The Indian crowd, Narula says, prefers this dish with the more flavorful goat, and I wouldn't mind that extra baaa boost, either.
But I can see why Narula might want to play his menu mellow. Especially as he pursues his expansion plans into unexotic territory more accustomed to the white-bread blandness of Denny's, he'll need all the good karma he can get.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews August, in South Philadelphia. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.