Name that continent
When it comes to Indian restaurants, like lawyers, there’s always room for one more good one. Bombay Bar & Grill on 21st Street between N Street and Capitol Avenue is such a haven.
One reason is it lacks the ubiquitous, forced lunch buffet of other Indian places, featuring the inevitable chafing dishes of tandoori, saag, chana masala and lentil soup. Not at Bombay. Although any of its vast offerings can go “thali” for $3 more at dinner and 16 bits at lunch. Hindu for “plate,” thali adds dal, naan, the day’s featured vegetable curry and riata, a tzatziki-like condiment of yogurt, cucumber and lime. This generous but imminently finishable package comes in a shallow, silver compartmentalized tray with a mound of basmati center stage and, clockwise around it, the entree, the vegetable curry, dal and riata.
Food arrives very swiftly and steaming—a shame, on one level, since Bombay’s rich maple-trimmed gold and yellow hued interior with its faux (hopefully) snakeskin-upholstered booths is both comfortable and regal, like the dining room of a modest-meaned maharajah. With its authoritative bar, impressive selection of Indian brews and specialty drinks, Bombay makes a strong Midtown date destination.
But it’s what happens back in the kitchen that’s most captivating. Central to Indian food is the degree of skill with which its string of signature spices is intertwined. Cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, paprika, coriander, ajwain, adrak, nutmeg, cinnamon, garam masala, black pepper, tamarind, star anise, mint, cloves and chilies of varied Fahrenheit all have a hand, one way or another, in countless Indian dishes. Whoever mans the helm backstage at Bombay possesses a keen clarity in their combination, although shows some skittishness about turning up the temperature of the fare toward subcontinent levels.
Bombay is equally conversant with vegetables, chicken, lamb and seafood, tandoori or otherwise. As for vegetables, there’s 15 entrees, ranging from a hearty mughlai saag—spinach with goat cheese—to chana masala, the classic garbanzo tomato mix brightened by amchoor, or dried mango, powder. It routinely appears as the featured veggie curry of the thali option. There’s seven vegetarian appetizers, of which the vegetable momos—shredded carrot, cabbage and zucchini inside a close approximation of a steamed dim sum shell—are made more appetizing when drowned in the tomato-based tamarind and red chili dipping sauce.
Of the entrees, on one visit, the chicken in the tikka masala is a little dry. The chunks of cheese in the tangy paneer tikka masala, anything but. The chicken korma, a recipe where cashew is king, is not overpoweringly nutty.
Of special note is lal maas, the favorite lamb curry of Rajasthan, the menu informs. Those Rajasthanians are truly wise in the ways of lamb curry. There’s dried red chilies lurking in the yogurt-smoothed tomato sauce, which tastes distinctly of cardamom and cumin. For the faint of heart, best to fish a bit and cut the chilies into smaller pieces. A whole one can be the firebombing of Dresden on the tongue.
Even more memorable are the kadai prawns. Like molcajete in Mexico, kadai is cookware that’s given its name to a style of cooking. Employed liberally in varying sizes in Pakistan and Nepal, the kadai, in this case, is a shallow stainless steel bowl. Swimming within it are artfully butterflied shrimp in more a tomato-based gravy than a sauce, along with chunks of bell pepper and onion slivers. The gravy is both sweet and tart. Coconut milk? Lemon? Whatever the secret, instantly addicting.
One of the waitresses jokes that the food served at this location is moving around the world. Previously, the spot was a Vietnamese-Chinese joint. Maybe Moroccan next, she says.
Don’t even think it. Stick right here on the subcontinent where something special is happening.