Open for dinner Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Reservations, AE, BA, MC.
Food: Very good, elaborately sauced beef and lobster
Style: Splendid old-world theme, authentic down to the surly serfs
Price: Very expensive
DID IT EVERY REALLY EXIST, the British India of wide verandas where cool alcoholic drinks were served by teetotaling natives, of grand dining rooms perfumed by European delicacies alien to Indian earth? It now seems a fantasy. And so does the Bombay Bicycle, Club, the Shoreham American's last colonial outpost.
The dining room is a lavishing of high-backed bamboo chairs and red lacquered benches pulled up to tables set with double cloths and outsize crystal. Brass cricket boxes hold treasures of the East - sugar in paper packets. India surrounds you in wall-size photographs, beaded curtains and curtained nooks. High on the walls, a kind of two-dimensional attic is strewn with big-wheel bicycles and steamer trunks, evoking visions of clipper ships crossing the Indian Ocean carrying crinolines and cutaways to wilt in the heat.
Decadent. Deliciously decadent. And in the kitchen, as well. No stewed lentils here; hardly even any rice. The cooking is in the extravagant European style, with an Indian concession of a sprinkling of curry powder on the baked clams Bombay and in the salad dressing, and a lone curried chicken - at $9, priced high enough to feed a Bombay family for how long? The fare is Scotch salmon, French snails, Dover sole. The titles of the courses - jal pachan for appetizers to mithni for desserts - are Indian, but the choices are Continental Hotel Modern: crab-stuffed avocado, onion soup, Caesar salad, flamed duck with cherries or pepper steak, even baked Alaska.There is not even a Pimma's cup at the bar.
Among us hotel-jaded diners, the signs make us wary. All that attention paid to the draperies. The parchmentesque menu a litany of contrived haughty cuisine. Whooshes of flame bursting from tableside carts and lingering smells of burned butter. We worry that this is something dreamed up by a Theme-A-Day-and-Gone-Tommorrow restaurant consultant.
And so the surprise is that the food is good. Take the lobster in whiskey sauce.Fresh lobster meat was tenderly cooked, laved with a pale rose sauce that tasted as smooth as it looked. Filet mignon oscar, very thick and very rare, got what it deserved - a richly tarragoned bearnaise, a lovely chunk of lobster and an artichoke bottom. Imagine, in this day and age, a thick rib steak in a mellow brown sauce, garnished with real marrow.The meats are of good quality and cooked with care, the sauces delicately balanced, even the cherry sauce on the duck, which is so often cloying. Only the duck itself was obviously flawed, layered with fat, and soggy, as was its wild rice accompaniment. Alongside the main mushrooms, in another case green beans with peas and celeriac. Appetizers and salads, however, are more pedestrian; baked clams Bombay tasted of nothing more than butter and curry powder and overcooking. Cold cream soup Krishna is refreshing but bland. Avocado is stuffed with Alaskan crab, a pity when local crab is so much better, but that is the imperialist tradition. "The Bombay Bicycle Club Garden of the Goods Sals With Palace Dressing" is nothing near what its title conjures in the mind.
That the wines are overpriced (including $2 for a glass, though a large one) fits with the menu, which averages $12 to $14 for main dishes, $3 to $4 for appetizers. Even the soggy, leaden pastries cost $2.50. So don't expect to emerge from dinner paying less than $30 a person. At lunch (suspended until September 15), a buffet swings wildly from excellent thyme-scented rare filet of beef to mushy fish-scented smoked salmon, and costs $6.50, including some very good soups, salads, vegetables like spicy stewed eggplant, and pastries that taste more dismal than even at dinner. If you concentrate on the filet, marinated mushrooms, hot (or more accurately, lukewarm) vegetables, and end your meal with fresh fruit or floating island custard, your lunch money will be well spent.
Price is not all. Attitude counts for a lot, and at the Bombay Bicycle Club it seems just short of revolution. Though resplendent in their vibrant red jackets with gold embroidery, the waiters seem restless. Not just clumsy, not just shaky in their command of English and their ability to read a wine label, they convey the impression that you are imposing on them. At the lunch buffet we finally decided to carve our own filet rather that wait until we could find a waiter. At dinner, the struggle to get cream for coffee results in barely enough for one cup. The dessert cart is wheeled up - and abandoned. The waiter tried to talk us out of dessert souffles (which were near the end of a meal could not compensate for an indifferent waiter who attended our flamed duck so slowly that our other entrees grew cold, and delivered his final coup by sloshing the dregs of our '69 Margaux into an unfinished glass.
But that's old colonialism and new chain-hotel-ism.