Tom Sietsema Reviews the Recently Renovated Bombay Club
** 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 78 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
For anyone who has chafed at having to settle for dining at 5:30 or 9 o'clock at the popular Rasika in Penn Quarter or has missed the chance to revel in chef Vikram Sunderam's vivid cooking, here's welcome news: The city's best Indian restaurant just got some competition.
From a family member.
That would be the Bombay Club, near the White House, which celebrated its 20th anniversary recently with a $600,000 nip-and-tuck and a menu makeover that retains some customer favorites while adding a slew of dishes to rival those served at its trendy sibling. Loyalists can relax. Tandoor salmon and green chili chicken are sticking around. But they've been joined by a pork chop vindaloo and an unlikely but tasty kebab of cottage cheese and roasted corn. What had long been a romantic if dated dining room known for serving good but conservative Indian cooking has been transformed, seemingly overnight, into a restaurant that pulses with fresh appeal.
The place looks better than ever. Jewel tones brighten the fabric on the banquettes. A splash of pink on the soft leather chairs is echoed in the pattern of a new carpet, and the walls are richer for their espresso-colored paint. Whereas customers used to shy away from the drab bar, now the lounge, set off with see-through panes, is packed some nights. The lone off note is a holdover, a white piano that screams "Liberace!" from a corner near the host stand.
Nilesh Singhvi isn't a Washington name -- yet -- but food lovers should commit it to memory. Though the Bombay Club's 45-year-old chef has been at the helm for three years, he's cooking at a level I hadn't tasted here before. When a side dish as ordinary-sounding as roasted eggplant compels a diner to ask for two tablespoons of leftovers to be wrapped for home consumption (guilty!), you know you're on to something special. Cooked in the tandoor oven so that it picks up a deep charcoal flavor, the eggplant is combined with sauteed onions, ginger and yogurt, the result of which a friend aptly describes as "Indian baba ghanouj." Make room for it.
As at Rasika, the Bombay Club slips some unexpected ingredients into the mix. Duck and venison aren't exactly staples of Indian menus, but they appear here, and they're wonderful. The duck is served ground, in a soft kebab that pricks the tongue with chilies and ginger and can be swabbed with a vibrant mint sauce if you wish. The venison arrives as a couple of tender chops with a yogurt sauce that suggests an old-fashioned cream gravy by way of New Delhi; cashew nuts and onion broaden the gravy's scope.
Not every dish succeeds. Riding on the success of Rasika's fried spinach is an appetizer of crisp arugula and spinach chat, dotted with date chutney. But the Bombay Club's version is heavy and sweet, a poor imitation of one of the best salads in the city.
Singhvi is no longer afraid to inject heat in his food. For proof, order the Malabari shrimp. Before the appetizer reaches you, the seafood is marinated in black pepper, chilies,fennel seeds, curry leaves and lime juice, and gently seared on the stove. It's a recipe that causes your tongue to do somersaults and your fork to move to the cool diced mango on the plate. A vindaloo featuring an enormous lamb shank pushes all the right hot buttons, too, but the sting of its vinegar and spices is not so great that it masks the flavor of the meat.
Here and there, flaws keep three stars from this restaurant's grasp. The tandoor-baked breads are inconsistent, and even the seasoned ones can be bland. Fish sometimes is overcooked, and an appetizer featuring scallops, so big they could each pass for a head of garlic, disappoints with a cloying lemon sauce. I like soft lighting as much as the next baby boomer, but I don't want to have to ask for extra votives or bring a miner's hat to read the menu. Yet none of those complaints would keep me from returning, even on my own dime.
The waiters at the Bombay Club sport yellow ties with dark vests these days, but they still go about their duties with a kind of hyper-attentiveness that summons the days of the Raj. The service is old-fashioned and courtly; anything you say is likely to prompt a "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma'am" in response. Even if you're not a Somebody, you're made to feel like one.
If you're dining on a budget, order one of the thalis ($20-$24), which arrange small portions of a handful of popular dishes on a single platter. In the case of the "Club" thali, a diner can graze on fiery fish curry, zesty chicken makhni and sweetly spiced lamb roganjosh. The leaf-shaped tray also finds room for spinach puree, buttery lentils, a cake of fluffy rice and dahi wada. The last, lentil dumplings in a cool yogurt sauce, takes the edge off the heat of some of the thali's spicier bowls. What I liked most about the feast was that no two dishes tasted the same. Although the brick-red sauces on the plate looked similar, the fish curry balanced chilies with coconut milk, and the chicken was savory with tomato, garlic, ginger and butter.
The dessert menu embraces the usual names. They include kulfi, the pleasantly chewy Indian ice cream, and kheer, a loose and creamy rice pudding. Creme brulee involves some twists (its flavor is mango and the confection comes with adorable cumin-flecked shortbread cookies) but also a flaw: the burnt-sugar crust is as thick as this magazine. Satiny chocolate sauce drapes over the muffinlike sticky toffee "pudding," which shares its plate with a scoop of spiced ice cream. It's a pleasant match.
The Bombay Club has always been a civilized place to eat. A revamp of the dining room and a burst of energy in the kitchen have pushed the restaurant to a different playing field. Sibling rivalry has rarely tasted so good.
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Valet parking at dinner. Metro: Farragut West. Dinner prices: appetizers $7 to $12, entrees $16 to $24.