by Leslie Feldman and Len Lear
Indian cuisine is as diverse as its cultures, languages, regions and climates, and for Indian-born Manish Chopra, sharing that culture with the community with the opening of a new restaurant is something to which he’s deeply committed.
Chopra and his wife opened Banjara Indian Bistro, a BYOB, at 8705 Germantown Ave., previously home to Heirloom, on Sept. 16 after experiencing success with their flagship restaurant, Cross Culture, in Haddonfield, NJ, over the past decade. The name “Banjara” is a poetic term that means “nomad.”
“We want to reflect various cultures and regions of India in our cuisine,” Chopra explained. “We want to provide a taste of different regions of India, as a nomad would experience traveling to the different parts of India. Our menu is going to change monthly, reflecting different cuisines from different regions of India.”
Despite the presence of three other Indian-themed restaurants, Jyoti and Tiffin in nearby Mt. Airy and Nirvana Indian Bistro in Lafayette Hill, Chopra said he welcomes competition. “We want to create a special niche for ourselves in the Chestnut Hill area. We are a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant and bring a different kind of sophistication in terms of service, food and ambience.”
The owner, a 51-year-old native of New Delhi, India, did his culinary training in India and worked with a five-star chain called the Oberoi Hotel. He came to the U.S. in 1993 and eventually opened his first restaurant in Haddonfield, NJ, because “we liked the demographics and old-school charm of the neighborhood.”
Chopra selected Chestnut Hill as the site for Banjara after eyeing the neighborhood for some time. “We like the historic nature, family-friendly crowd and the fact that people support family-owned local businesses instead of big chains, and it’s an exact replica of Haddonfield and the historic nature of the town.”
Many westerners associate Indian cuisine with fiery heat, but Chopra insists Banjara is different. “A common misconception is that Indian food must always be fiery hot. Indian food does not have to be hot or spicy. It can be as mild or as spicy as you want.”
According to Wikipedia, “Historical incidents such as foreign invasions, trade relations and colonialism have played a role in introducing certain foods to India. For instance, the potato, a staple of the diet in some regions of India, was brought to India by the Portuguese. Indian cuisine has shaped the history of international relations; the spice trade between India and Europe was the primary catalyst for Europe’s Age of Discovery. Spices were brought from India and traded around Europe and Asia. Indian cuisine has influenced other cuisines across the world, especially those from the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the British Isles, Fiji and the Caribbean.“
At Banjara, dishes are made to order, so patrons can control the spiciness and heat on a scale from one to 10. (Ed. Note: My wife and I ordered food recently in Banjara at a heat level of 5 and 3, respectively. The food was great but extremely hot and spicy! Another plus is that to eat there, you do not have to sign a “naan-disclosure” agreement.) Vegan and gluten-free options also are available.
“We tone down the use of chilies,” said Chopra, “and enhance some richer ingredients to create dishes that are gentler but retain the flavor, aroma and texture for which Indian cuisine is rightfully famous … Most people like a little heat to their food, though, while we have some courageous customers who even go up to a spice level 9.”
Some of the vegetarian dishes are samosa (fried turnovers stuffed with mildly spiced potatoes and peas, $7); assorted pakora (fresh vegetables dipped in a delicately spiced chickpea batter, $7) and aloo tikki (potato patties stuffed with spinach, homemade cheese and topped with tamarind and date chutney, $8).
And there are the familiar dishes for any Indian food buff such as chicken curry (boneless chicken breast, red wine vinegar, tomato sauce, ginger, garlic and garam masala, $16), shrimp tandoori (eight jumbo shrimp, tomato paste, ginger, garlic and lemon juice, $20) and lamb korma (boneless lamb, cashew paste, fenugreek leaves and yogurt, $17).
The restaurant is open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
For more about Banjara, including monthly specials, call 215-247-5500 or visit banjarapa.com.