$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

NOTE: The restaurant runs an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet 7 days a week.

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005

It's not easy, in these days of lavishly appointed and extensively researched retro-Raj luxury, for an Indian restaurant to be startlingly good. Nor is it hard to find a neighborhood tandoori outpost, now that every second suburban strip mall seems to have at least one Indian kitchen in its repertoire.

And yet White Oak's Bombay is a surprise, and a welcome one. Not terribly pretty, though pleasant; not well advertised, not even particularly visible behind the Sears, Bombay is nevertheless a little haven of assured, complex and generous fare, and a fair bargain at that. Sauces are distinct, rich and layered, the result of obvious close attention. Meats are cooked slow enough to stay moist, and in mixed-meat dishes, such as the Bombay biryani, the lamb, chicken and shrimp had clearly been added one after another, so that the lamb was firm but the shrimp were tender.

Even the relatively plain rice served with main dishes -- you may choose naan instead -- is worth attention: quality Basmati with separate, pleasantly slick grains, aromatic and with a sly bite of spice all its own.

Calcutta-born chef Anthony Binod, according to the menu, has been cooking for a quarter-century and owned an Indian restaurant in Queens, N.Y., before moving here. If you can make it there, you can make good food anywhere, apparently. The chicken tikka masala is a prime example, lightly sweet, with a thick, slightly creamy tomato sauce worth taking home for a second round; it makes the butter chicken at most Indian establishments seem thin and short. The goat is fabulous, with a curry sauce so dark and thick with brown spices it's almost nutty as well as roundly and intoxicatingly inflammatory.

(The kitchen pays fair attention to requests for spice levels, especially after the first visit; but one of the marks of the chef's experience is that the heat rarely explodes in the front of the mouth, but curls and wafts and builds on itself as the mouthful rolls about. Binod, one would say, has a slow hand.)

The tandoori dishes are more straightforward, of course, but even then the marinades have been honorably juiced and given time to infiltrate the meat. (Those who are ready to surrender on the idea of turkey burgers might be pleased to discovered the chicken sheekh kabab, here made with ground spiced chicken; or the chicken-stuffed samosas.) Softer, Persian-Moghul dishes are equally deft, though best eaten only somewhat spicy, since the flavorings are milder and more easily pushed to harshness or overwhelmed. Lamb korma, for example, is a dish of fork-tender meat in a sauce of almonds and cashews ground to what seems like cream and scented with allspice and cinnamon.

Binod treats vegetarian dishes with even more care than many of the meat-free Indian chefs around. In fact, his version of bhindi masala, sauteed okra, is easily the best in memory. Baingan bharta, eggplant good almost to the melting stage, had far more simmered-in spice than most versions, and no trace of bitterness. A Norfolk-sized oval of saag paneer, the spinach and yogurt cheese staple, also had character as well as a comforting smoothness.

The complimentary papadum, those crispy sour-lentil crackers, come with unusually good tamarind and coriander sauces; the rich mango chutney is thick as preserves. The breads are first-rate, particularly the lightly spicy aloo paratha, toasted and then skillet seared, and the whole wheat paratha, puffed from the tandoor and drizzled -- dangerously and fabulously -- with melted butter, as is the plain naan. It reminded me of an old friend who taught me to melt butter on my pizza: I wish he'd never mentioned it.

Like many Indian restaurants, Bombay offers an all-you-can-eat buffet from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, $7.95 weekdays and $9.95 weekends.

A few quibbles: The samosas, both vegetarian and chicken-stuffed, are tall and the pastry really tasty, but they have obviously been microwaved; both times they came to the table hot to the touch but cold in the center. The chicken malabar appetizer, sort of a poultry version of coconut shrimp, didn't make much of a case for itself. And plastic flowers is a convenience that should be limited to cemeteries.

One general note: Bombay's menu repeats an assertion that is increasingly common on menus, but nevertheless a ridiculous one: "All our fried dishes are prepared in low-cholesterol and low-fat vegetable oil." Low in cholesterol, certainly, but all oils, animal or vegetable, are 100 percent fat. Never let a menu do your nutritional thinking for you.