Several years ago, I visited IndeBlue’s location in downtown Philadelphia with an elderly Indian woman I know who cooked veritable feasts of Indian food at home every night of the week. I was lucky enough to score an occasional invite.
That night in Philly, when our plates arrived, she took a few bites and her face soured. Shaking her head, she said in Tamil, her native tongue: “It’s no good. It’s… inauthentic.”
With all due respect, Auntie, you were missing the point.
Chefs at most Indian restaurants tend not to stray far from what they know. Lamb biryani at a restaurant in Edison, a town known for its Indian food, will be more or less the same as lamb biryani in, say, Egg Harbor. Chefs may go heavier or lighter on spices, but nobody is roasting Brussels sprouts with pomegranate and toasted coconut and calling it Indian food.
Well, nobody except Rakesh Ramola.
The 48-year-old IndeBlue chef, originally from Bombay, opened his modern Indian kitchen in Collingswood in 2009. Seeing many customers coming from Philadelphia, he opened there in 2013. When his Collingswood lease expired in 2018, Ramola closed the New Jersey IndeBlue and concentrated on the Philadelphia outpost, which, unlike dry Collingswood, boasted a full bar.
IndeBlue Philadelphia survived the pandemic. But when its lease expired last year, Ramola and his wife, Heather, who manages the front of the house, crossed the bridge again, settling their polished operation in a Cherry Hill strip mall close to their home. Philadelphia’s loss is very much South Jersey’s gain.
Here, you can enjoy dinner and brunch daily. The elegant, chic interior is impeccably decorated (thank Heather) and date-worthy, the service warm and welcoming (if sometimes slow), the soundtrack (modern Indian and Indian-inspired) alluring.
Should you choose to sit outside, your view is of a parking lot, plenty of concrete and noisy Route 70. My advice? Reserve inside, no matter how gorgeous the day.
The aforementioned Brussels sprouts, an appetizer on the sizable menu, is one of many dishes that burst with flavor. In addition to pomegranate (traditional in some Indian dishes for contrasting sourness), and toasted coconut (a staple in certain Indian states), chili and freshly ground spices add notes to the complex chord. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. It’s not gratuitously creative; it works, like many other dishes on the menu that, at first, present strange-sounding juxtapositions.
Strange-sounding indeed is butter chicken poutine, an appetizer marrying the Quebecois junk food (here, the fries are doused with spices found in any well-stocked Indian pantry) with butter chicken, a rich Indian comfort food. I was highly suspicious—but couldn’t stop eating it.
A complex sea bass entrée went Indo-Thai via mustard seeds, fiery chopped chilis, coconut milk, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Ramola has his own Indian version of chicken wings, called Drums of Heaven, that had me licking my fingers, though I forked away the blue cheese served on top. Not everything works.
Ramola even has fun with his Indian breads. Sure, you could stick with traditional naan, but why, when there’s the bagel shop-inspired everything naan—a flatbread laced with sesame seeds, onions, garlic and poppy seeds, brushed with butter, and best used to scoop up IndeBlue’s addictive crab-corn dip, primed with toasted mustard seeds and chili. And, though it’s not on the dessert menu, the Kashmiri naan should be; it’s sweet and stuffed with pistachios, raisins and coconut.
Not everything twists tradition. The lentil-based dal makhani, spicy pork vindaloo and aloo gobi (a vegetable curry), for instance, are relatively standard—but all three are worth ordering and better than most. Some dishes are Indian through and through but rarely found on a menu in these parts. Take IndeBlue’s exceptional shrimp moilee, a fragrant curry from the Kerala state in southern India, rich with coconut milk. And, though many restaurants offer lamb, chicken and, if you’re lucky, goat biryani, IndeBlue is the only one I’ve seen where the spicy saffron rice is paired not just with shrimp and crab, but with lobster, too.
It’s too bad IndeBlue couldn’t bring its fabulous bar with its ambitious cocktail program from Philadelphia to Cherry Hill, where the restaurant isn’t licensed to serve alcohol other than through the exception that allows it to sell New Jersey-made wine. The offerings are affordable, but that’s the best I can say for them. Fortunately, you can BYO, with no corkage fee.
Desserts at Indian restaurants are often prepackaged. But at IndeBlue, chocolate lovers would do well to order the pot de crème, into which Ramola introduces hints of chai. And if I could fill my freezer with IndeBlue’s fig-and-pistachio kulfi—think of kulfi as Indian ice cream—I certainly would.
So get your tandoor chicken wherever you normally do. But if you tire of those plebeian plates, make your way to IndeBlue—and keep an open mind.
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- Cuisine Type:Modern Indian
- Price Range:Inexpensive–Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $11-$18; entrées, $19-$32; breads and sides, $4-$16; desserts, $8-$10
- Ambience:Elegant, chic, date-worthy
- Service:Warm and welcoming, if a bit slow
- Wine list:BYO