In a flash, the polished silver bell was lifted from the plate at Tashan and a veil of smoke drifted up like a ghost to envelop our table.
When the clovey scent of apple and hickory mist faded, a gorgeous quail lay before us, regally plumped with basmati rice tanged with tamarind and peanuts, then crowned with the caramelized sweetness of onion chutney. The meat, marinated in gingery brown garlic paste, was sublimely tender - one of the finest quails, in fact, I've ever tasted.
So, what kind of magic has brought this Shikaari delight - the hunting fare of Rajasthan's desert kings - to a table on South Broad Street? And what a table it is, set into a chic new modern space clad in wine walls and dark-leather banquettes that ring the open kitchen like a tandoori theater, its beehive clay ovens shimmering with 900-degree heat and stainless steel tiles.
That magic is the grand vision of Munish Narula, 41, the man who has grown Tiffin from a humble little kitchen in Northern Liberties to a multi-restaurant empire with 230 seats, a crack delivery team, and a well-deserved reputation as the local standard for traditional Indian fare done right.
In its own right, the five-year-old Tiffin has gone a long way toward raising expectations beyond the artless bargain buffets of University City's Curry Row. But Tashan is in a class of its own, fulfilling the name's Hindi meaning - "style, swagger, or attitude" - in every way. From the showpiece dining room to the high-tech iPad wine list to the thrillingly inventive kitchen, this is Tiffin's big Buddakan moment.
Given that one of Narula's culinary talents, executive chef Sylva Senat, 33, worked at Buddakan in both New York and Philadelphia (following long stints at Jean-Georges and Aquavit), the comparison isn't a stretch. The sharing plates here are gorgeous with contemporary style, whether it's the silver foil that gilds the velvety-soft lamb galouti kebabs with minted yogurt chutney, the silky spinach palak tikki patties stuffed with pistachios and glazed in saffron-morel cream, or the succulent grilled two-pound lobster dusted with masala spice over cardamom butter and curried corn.
The Haitian-born and Brooklyn-raised Senat is clearly one of Philly's promising new kitchen stars. But it is his collaboration with Narula's old schoolmate and Indian master chef, Sanjay Shende, 45, that gives this kitchen the essential authentic roots to be more than mere superficial fusion. The Delhi-born Shende brings a font of wisdom on his native culinary treasures, and this expansive menu (perhaps too big) puts elements of India's regional diversity on stunningly fresh display.
Beautiful lamb chops, tenderized by a papaya marinade and a touch of pure mustard oil, blush with Kashmiri paprika. Hollow gol-gappa durum puffs, filled with spicy potato-chickpea salad, get a tableside squirt of minted cilantro water, then burst in the mouth like juicy pastry balloons of herb and crunch. Classic chicken biryani is elegantly served tableside, the pastry lid lifted to release a pouf of curried ambrosia, then spoonfuls of amazingly fragrant rice and tender meat. Surprisingly, this is one of the few dishes here to feature rice or curry. There's not a samosa to be found. (Unless you come for brunch.)
"Munish challenged me to show the world what Indian food can be," said Shende, who was recruited from Ireland, where he still owns a restaurant in Limerick. "People in England are getting too cocky. They think they set the global tone."
Their creations are bound to stir strong opinions. The traditionalists will chafe at the kitchen's creative liberties (pork and beef on the menu? Vindaloo chicken stuffed into "Mangalorean" sausages? Yum!) The Americans, meanwhile, who have been trained to view Indian food as a cheap meal only, will wonder at the prices, with sharing plates in the mid-teens, and a few larger dishes pushing $30.
But just as Susanna Foo did with Chinese cuisine, Narula's project has the potential to be a game-changer and show how exciting the Indian sensibility can be when the best ingredients and sophisticated chefs are at play. Clove and garlic-marinated venison is scented with smoke over the charcoal sigri grill and served with a boozy chutney made from rum and plums. Tender slices of pork tenderloin come tingling with a 21-spice Xacutti marinade sparked with dried peppers, coriander, and cardamom. Moist curried king crab is blended with chile paste, ginger and cilantro and topped with crackery rice puffs. Seared duck breast marinated in house yogurt with mace and green chiles is roasted tikka-style in place of the usual chicken alongside silky spinach saag paneer.
In a year when most new restaurants were pointing their pitchforks back toward local farms, Philly needed this exotic blast of Bollywood glitz. And I don't simply mean metaphorically - the Bollywood stars have come, leaving testimonials behind ("My home away from home," raved Indian film legend Anupam Kher while in town filming with Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper).
They've come because Narula has delivered with the passion of a proud immigrant entrepreneur who has everything on the line with a $2.6 million investment: "That's a lot of butter chicken," he concedes.
There are still details to perfect. The vast 136-seat space created by New York-based designer Winka Dubbledam manages to be sultry and intimate, with a private wine room separated by pivoting leather doors, oversize chairs in the lounge, and deep alcove banquettes lending the feel of semi-privacy. But the unisex bathrooms offer a rare glimpse of tacky, with beaded wallpaper and unfortunate black fixtures.
The iPad wine lists were a revelation, fun to navigate with expandable details on each wine and an impressive collection of intriguing wines to peruse, most with fair markups. There is a big need here, though, especially in Philly, for more craft beers.
Though the pacing sometimes lagged (especially toward the end of our dinners), the service was well-trained with smart guidance on choosing the scope of our meal.
It is the menu's overly grand ambitions, though, that could still use a little pruning. The bread selection is one of the few items here that remains completely mundane (and never was a Tiffin strong point). A couple of promising dishes - both the scallops and black bass - suffered from sauces that were overwhelmingly frothy and thick.
There are so many successes here, though, these nits are only a matter of fine-tuning. Vegetarians can find plenty to love. The house-made paneer comes marinated in yellow dal and grilled as a shashlik with black salt and chile powder; or sliced with fresh mozzarella over tomato makhani sauce and a "pizza" flatbread flecked with fenugreek. Potato patties "aloo tikki" are stuffed with cuminy yellow lentils then topped with minty chutney and crispy gram flour fritters. The baingan bharta is a mince of amazingly fluffy, smoky eggplant - lighter than any I've had.
Seafood lovers will find huge shrimp roasted to tandoor perfection, or tender octopus, char-grilled over "tribal pepper" sauce sparked with cumin and mustard seeds. Carnivores, meanwhile, should be well-sated with minced kobe kebabs inflected with garam masala, amazingly tender chicken Patanga roulades stuffed with oniony nuts and raisins, or a huge Kashmiri lamb shank for sharing, braised with cumin cashew sauce and the sweetness of medjool dates that tempers - for just a moment - a steady swelling spice.
For dessert, meanwhile, there are clever takes on Indian ice cream (pistachio, mango, and rose), gulab jamun (tucked inside creme brûlée), and even molten chocolate cake - a dish I never thought I'd want again. Sided with chai kulfi and a bracingly tart-sweet shot of white chocolate-yogurt lassi - a touch of Tashan's New Indian magic goes a long way.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.