Before coming to America in 1992, Vipul Bhasin worked for India’s most luxurious hotel brand, Taj. “At that time in India, all the best restaurants were in five-star hotels,” says the New Delhi-born chef. In his postings, he learned regional styles, and later hosted Indian food festivals in Thailand and Jamaica and an Indian banquet at the Smithsonian in Washington. Finally, in 2004, Bhasin opened his own place, the Indian bistro Coriander, in Voorhees, where he lives.
“When I opened,” he says, “most of the local restaurants were Italian. Indian restaurants in South Jersey were all take-out. Now people have grown, they’re exposed to the wider world and more open to ethnic food and spices.”
Like most Indian restaurants in America, Coriander features dishes from the Punjab. This northwestern state, which includes New Delhi, is famed for its contributions to Indian cuisine, including its tandoor clay ovens. While proud of his Punjabi heritage, the 44-year-old chef is quick to note that “there is so much more.”
To project a broader picture, in 2012 Bhasin opened Indiya in nearby Collingswood. Indiya attracts a diverse crowd: businessmen, 20-somethings on dates, Indian families, hipsters drifting over from open-mic night at the cafe across the street. Though squeezed into a narrow storefront, Indiya feels sunny and open. Even the serving vessels are something to behold. Small, ornate, silver-plated bowls, filled with the components of each person’s meal, are presented on a boomerang-like platter called a dhali, which curves around the diner’s plate.
“This is a traditional, home-style way of serving in India, so you have a little bit of everything and create a more balanced meal,” Bhasin told me after my visits. He had the dhalis custom-made in India. These artful touches help elevate Indiya, but the attention to detail and authenticity is most noticeable, and rewarding, in the food. For example, Bhasin grinds certain spices critical to flavor (like fennel, cardamon, mace, cloves and cumin) just moments before he uses them.
“I have a small coffee grinder, and that’s my best friend in the kitchen,” he said. “If you don’t use the spices immediately, you don’t get the same flavor.”
Bhasin also grinds the spices for his masala chai tea, conjuring a potable aria from a personal blend that includes cardamom, ginger, cloves, fennel and just a touch of cinnamon. “A lot of Indian restaurants use pre-made blends that overuse less expensive spices like cinnamon,” he maintains. “These ruin the taste.” His blend also provides the base for Indiya’s suave chai ice cream. Order it when you arrive; it often sells out.
From the tandoor come excellent salmon, shrimp and chicken entrées, as well as classic breads. From the Punjabi city of Amritsar (“a foodie Mecca where my mom grew up”) Bhasin presents broodingly spicy goat curry Beli-Ram. Little known in Jersey restaurants, Beli-Ram is named for the Amritsar chef who made it locally famous.
The slender state of Kerala on India’s southwest tip, on the Arabian Sea, is represented by fish moilee, hunks of flaky bass simmered with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and curry leaves. Chicken-pepper Chettinad hails from the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal. “Tamil Nadu is predominantly vegetarian,” Bhasin explained, “but Chettinad is a subregion where they eat meat. It’s the region that gave black pepper to the world.” Indeed, cracked black pepper electrifies this dish, which a touch of star anise subtly mellows.
Although you won’t find black pepper used in the north or fenugreek in the south, Indian regions differ less in the spices used, Bhasin said, than in “how they are processed. In the North, spices are tempered in hot oil before being added to the dish. In the South, the spices are first roasted in a dry pan. It gives them a nutty flavor, which the same spices in the North won’t have.” The oil-tempered ginger and other spices in a Punjabi classic like chicken tikka makhani “make it, in my opinion, perfect for winter.”
At Indiya, the dish was tender and buttery, with tomato and honey rounding the spicy edges. Often in America, that job goes to heavy cream. “Cream is a lazy cook’s best friend,” Bhasin declared. “Only in one Indian region, the Punjab, is cream used even a little bit, like in chicken tikka makhani. We reduce the cream and, as in India, add cashew-nut paste to finish the sauce.”
Conservative but hardly hidebound, Bhasin comes up with a few smart fusions. His crisp crab cakes are meaty enough to pass muster at any Shore shack, but their cilantro, cumin and coconut seasoning and side of tangy tomato chutney put them in a league of their own. Coconut and ginger enliven his butternut squash soup.
Best of all is his tandoori broccoli. He marinates sturdy stalks in traditional tandoori spices, but adds a bit of American cream cheese to the yogurt base. “Without the cream cheese, the marinade would slide off,” he explained. The singed and smoky stalks—served on a swipe of fresh marinade—are one of the simplest and best items on the entire menu. You can imagine Mad Men’s Betty Draper serving them at a Taj Mahal-themed dinner party.
Among the breads we ordered was a Kashmiri naan stuffed with golden raisins, coconut, almonds and cashews. It could have passed for dessert, so I saved some to dip into a cup of kheer, an outrageously creamy basmati rice pudding laced with saffron, cardamom, almond and pistachio. The two were meant for each other. In a mango sorbet, speckles of green chili gave the familiar flavor a seductive glimmer.
A conversation with Bhasin about spices could last an evening. In fact, that enlightening experience is available to anyone. Responding to customer requests, he gives monthly classes at the restaurant “to get people comfortable with Indian spices. I teach them things you can’t learn through a recipe.” Bhasin’s demonstration, talk and Q/A runs from 6:30 to 9:30 pm and includes a four-dish meal. Cost: $45. It’s hard to find a better value than that.