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The first promising sign at Bombay, hidden away in the dilapidated White Oak Shopping Center, was the plate of chutneys placed in the middle of the table when we sat down, a fetching Technicolor centerpiece. The coriander chutney resembled—well, nothing in nature. Here was a green that Crayola would have been happy to discover: Imagine a dish of pistachio ice cream lit from within. And the tamarind chutney looked like what you’d get if you’d reduced an entire bottle of shiraz down to a couple of tablespoons—a lush, sticky, ruby-red syrup.
I couldn’t resist. Since the basket of papadums had yet to arrive, I leaned in, dipped a pinkie into the tamarind, and took a lick. The color’s promise was fulfilled: This was as far from the usual tamarind as you could expect to find—more pungent, more tangy, with a sustained finish of smoky toasted cumin. Back in went the pinkie, this time to try the coriander. My tablemates followed, my breach of table etiquette encouraging their own.
A minute later the papadums came, and our waiter, genteel in his starched white shirt, could hardly suppress his smile at our ill-mannered ways. If only he had stuck around a moment later instead of turning to attend a neighboring table, as we attacked the basket like teenagers at a pizza party.
After a start like that, it’s hard to resist the temptation to go ahead and order one of everything, just to see if the kitchen can do any wrong. It was only the limits of my stomach—well, that and my reluctance to bring any more embarrassment upon my tablemates—that prevented me from knocking out the entire menu that night.
Over the course of subsequent visits, I learned what I was reluctant to believe on that initial encounter: Bombay is not perfect. Frying is inconsistent (though the samosas have been first-rate, lighter and flakier than anything that monstrous and heavy ought to be), oversalting occasionally sneaks in, meats are prone to chewiness, breads are middling, and service has ranged from the self-consciously deferential to the unapologetically pushy. “We have an extensive selection of Indian beers,” my waiter informed me one night. Yes, all two of them.
I am duty-bound to catalog these various missteps, but I should also tell you that what has stayed with me about Bombay is something larger and more important: its ability to reawaken the palate, to engender an enthusiasm for budget-friendly Indian that a profusion of generic curries and indifferent tandoors may have dulled. Dishes I was starting to take for granted are given new life at Bombay, so much so that I was tempted a couple of times to take a refresher peek at the menu just to clarify what I thought I’d ordered. Take the wondrous chicken tikka masala, in which the expected cloying brown gravy makes way for a light, creamy tomato sauce. You might guess that chef Anthony Binod had spent some time in Italy: There’s more bright, tomatoey sweetness in his curry than in a lot of marinaras.
You might also guess that he had served time at an all-vegetarian kitchen, so skilled is he at elevating humble veggie dishes into something sophisticated and complex. He conjures the intensity of a dark roux in a chana masala that has a haunting depth. He bathes soft triangles of homemade cheese laced with shredded carrot and onion in a lusciously creamy, nutty sauce that leaves traces of clove and cinnamon like a woman trailing perfume. I couldn’t resist dragging my spoon through the dish for more of that lush, sweet sauce.
With the Goa fish curry, I ended up ditching the chunks of salmon—dry and dull—after only a few bites to gorge on the gravy. It was fabulous, with a sort of chunky rusticity that suggested Binod’s aim was to replicate the hearty, straightforward charms of great home cooking: the pungency of fried mustard seeds in one bite yielding to the dank, funky aromatics of curry leaves in the next, as opposed to a great, blanketing sensation of heat and spice.
This wasn’t the only instance in which I found myself passing over the protein in favor of more of the gravy, nor the only instance in which I didn’t particularly mind doing so. The curried goat was alternately chewy, fatty, and meltingly tender—but it wasn’t as good as its dark, peppery gravy. Similarly, a lamb vindaloo’s thick cubes of meat proved an unequal partner to the velvety-rich sauce.
If there’s an exception to the rule, it’s probably the tandoor, but then tandoor is usually the exception to the rule of dry, dull meats. Pay heed to the filet of salmon. It emerges from the blisteringly hot clay oven looking like a cousin to those unnaturally colored chutneys, with a radiant, almost glowing red exterior. Inside, the fish is cooked to a soft, yielding pink, the oiliness of the flesh mitigated by the pronounced lemony tang in the yogurt marinade.
Your server will tell you that Bombay has wonderful desserts, and though he’ll be pushing, he won’t be lying. The pistachio-flecked rice pudding is great—but a dish of either the mango ice cream or the butterfat-heavy pistachio kulfi will make for an iridescent finish to rival your start. Unrefined, unsubtle colors, for a restaurant of uncommon sophistication and subtlety.
1229 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 593-7222—Todd Kliman
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