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Cafe Spice Philadelphia, Pa. When New York interior designer Wid Chapman was hired to design the look for Cafe Spice, he wanted to “challenge the public conception of what ‘Indian’ means,” by abandoning the “kitschy” motif of most Indian restaurants in favor of a much more sophisticated, modern feel. As they say in the world of gymnastics, Chapman stuck the landing. Cafe Spice, on 2nd Street below Market, is one of the most exciting new eateries in the burgeoning Old City, and its interior has much to do with that success. The food’s great, too — and the service is even better — but more on that later. To my mind, it’s “atmosphere” that earns Cafe Spice its place among the best new restaurants in town. Chapman, who practices with his sister in the design firm of Chapman & Chapman and chairs the interior design department at the Parsons School of Design, said he wanted the interior of Cafe Spice to follow the restaurant’s name, and to “abstract the essence of spice and of India.” To achieve that, Chapman said that he worked with a palette of six colors inspired by the spices in Indian foods — turmeric, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, ginger and chili. Those were the six winners from a field that began with more than 30 spices. The colors are first noticeable in the paints and fabrics used to construct a series of intimate booths. Chapman says the booths were inspired by Indian spice boxes, and each one represents a spice. Climb inside one, and the first thing you’ll notice is a large, close-up photograph of the spice that inspired that booth’s color scheme. Echoing the colors of the booths are the chairs in the restaurant’s ample center. Chapman covered the seats and oval backs with ultra-suede in the same six hues — turmeric yellow; cardamom green; star anise gold; a warm brown for cinnamon; pale yellow ginger; and red hot for chili. The floor, an industrial tile, is mostly gray, but with splashes of color from the same spice palette. Throughout the restaurant, and most notably at the large bar in front, Chapman uses an interesting variety of paper lanterns to softly, yet effectively spread just enough illumination everywhere. And these are not your grandmother’s paper lanterns. They’re much more modern. Many are “light boxes,” as Chapman describes them; others seem inspired by organic shapes, such as onions; still others are pouches of white that perch on wall sconces. Chapman said he also wanted to use authentic Indian artifacts, mostly cooking tools or pots, as decorative items. But he didn’t want them to dominate the theme. To do that, he created niches in the walls and above the booths, most just large enough to accommodate the items they hold. “We wanted the display to look more like the way you see things in a gallery,” he said. The first Cafe Spice, in New York near Washington Square, was also designed by Chapman. The Philadelphia restaurant opened in April. A third is opening in two weeks in New York’s Grand Central Station. And the owners are currently looking at a space in New York’s Upper West Side. While the initial word of mouth may have a lot to do with Chapman’s design, Cafe Spice would not be the success it is if it weren’t for the food. To put it bluntly, eating Indian in Philadelphia no longer means that you’ll be slumming it. Assistant manager Sandeep Uberoi said the aim was to serve authentic Indian food the way it is served in India, but with a sophisticated, handsome presentation that lends itself to the tastes of modern, urban American diners. We started with an Indian standard, the samosa, a stuffed pastry that comes filled with your choice of potato ($4), chicken ($5), or minced lamb ($5). At Cafe Spice, the pastry looks like a sachet with the top twisted to close in the stuffing before baking. Three medium-sized pastries arrive on a plate with two dipping sauces to the side — a bright-green mint and coriander sauce, and a tangier, reddish-brown tamarind sauce. But the highlight of the appetizer section is the palak papri chaat ($5), served cold. Don’t be put off by the unusual combination of ingredients — spinach crisps, potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt and tamarind. Just be brave and take a big enough taste to get a sampling of everything at once. In several recent trips to Cafe Spice, our favorite main course was the murg tikka lababdar ($16), chunks of chicken in a creamy tomato sauce. Almost as good was the lamb vindaloo ($17), but we found that the spiciness was somewhat lacking there. Vindaloo, in most Indian restaurants, denotes an especially spicy dish that the faint of palette had best avoid. But despite its name, Cafe Spice seems intent on avoiding any complaints from American diners whose idea of spicy begins with salt and pepper and ends with tabasco sauce. We also tried the tandoori chicken ($16), another Indian standard. On one occasion, it was superb — juicy and plump with that marvelous red and black coating that comes from cooking in the tandoor. On a later visit, we ordered a sample plate that included one piece of tandoori chicken that seemed to have been left in the oven a bit too long. The third page of Cafe Spice’s menu lists the roomali rolls. At first, we were too interested in the first few pages, but on a later visit we experimented and were quite happy we did. Roomali rolls are somewhat like a burrito, but much longer. Inside, they hold the contents of a “seekh kebab.” We tried both the both the fish kebab ($19) and the traditional lamb ($17), and liked them both, although it is a bit unwieldy to eat at first. Desserts at Indian restaurants are truly unusual, and Cafe Spice continues that tradition. If you really have a craving for something sweet, we’d suggest going somewhere else after. But if you’re still in a brave mood, try the phirni, a cardamom-flavored rice pudding, or the gulab jamun, a cardamom-flavored hot dessert. One diner at our table summed it up best by saying “Interesting. … I think I liked it.” Safer bets are Cafe Spice’s daily selections of ice creams and sorbets. We especially liked the mango and the coconut, as well as the kulfi, an ice cream dish made with pistachios and saffron. A word on service: it’s excellent. Every time we dined at Cafe Spice, our server was quick to take our order, and ready to answer any question (and not with some rote speech, but in a way that showed true comfort with an exotic menu). A cadre of busboys and runners kept the tables clean and made sure the beverages and water glasses were never empty. Restaurant: Cafe Spice Location: 35 South 2nd Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; a late-night menu is served from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

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