Lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Main courses at lunch about $2.95 to $5.20, at dinner $3.75 to $6.95. Full dinner with tax, tip and beer or wine about $12 per person.
It's a pity that Indian cuisine hasn't achieved the wide popularity in this country enjoyed by other ethnic foods. The Indian menu can be wonderfully complex and subtle -- qualities that extend far beyond its legendary hotness -- yet it remains largely unexplored territory to most restaurant-goers. If you feel it's time to give your palate an elementary education in Indian cooking, the Bombay Curry House, an unassuming neighborhood restaurant, makes a fine school. The food is generally excellent -- on a par in many ways with the fancier places downtown -- the menu itself provides a mini-primer in its descriptions of the dishes, and the low prices will make you feel you're studying Indian food on at least a partial scholarship.
Before we get to the specifics, a few general hints on Indian eating. The real glory of this cuisine lies in its sauces, with their labyrinth of complementary flavors. It's not unusual for a sauce to contain 10 or more spices in intricate counterpoint, yet with none of them clearly dominant. So expect layers of taste and aroma, some more delayed than others. You may find yourself exclaiming on the way home. "That dish had nutmeg, too." The Bombay Curry House does particulary well with sauces -- silky, subtle blends of spices, often with cream, yogurt, butter, ground nuts or pureed vegetables.
Many Indian meat and vegetable dishes are so laden with sauce they resemble thick soups. The idea is to enjoy the sauce with plenty of what are known as "staples" -- breads and rice. Indian bread, baked or fried to order, is a key part of the meal. In addition to sopping up the sauces, the bread can cut the hotness of the food and provide a welcome contrast to the spices. Besides the staples, there are other ways to balance your meal and take the strain off your digestive tract. First, order side dishes of cold vegetables in yogurt (raita) as a bland accompaniment to the spicy dishes. And, especially if you're going to have fried appetizers, choose pan-baked Indian bread (chapati), with its nutty, whole-wheat flavor, rather than the deep-fried kind. If you're not partial to hot food, and particularly if you want to practice searching for all those many flavors in the sauces -- coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and mustard -- you may want to order the dishes "mild," meaning with a minimum of hot pepper.
At the Bombay Curry House be prepared for two characteristics of traditional Indian cooking that you won't find in more Americanized Indian restaurants: small portions of meat and great care in preparing the "staples." Notice how puffy and light even the deep-fried breads are, and how lovingly the rice is prepared and served, each grain firm and separate, and cooked just enough to be tender without over-softness.
Among the appetizers, pakora are fritters of vegetables or Indian cheese (paneer) dipped in a chickpea batter and deep fried. They're well executed at the Bombay Curry House, fried in fresh oil that doesn't penetrate to the interior of the fritter. More remarkable are samosas, little pastries with a nicely crisp and flaky crust. The meat-filled samosas are particularly admirable, with rough-textured ground beef that's carefully drained of fat. Although the samosas here lack the extraordinary puffiness that mark the best of them, they're definitely worth a try. A less subtle appetizer is aaloo tiki, patties of mashed potato mixed with green peas and laced liberally with coriander, cumin and chile pepper, then deep-fried. They're good, but no match for the delicate samosas.
There are 13 meat and nine vegetable entrees on the menu. Except for the few baked tandoori dishes, each is served in a deep bowl with a liberal quantity of sauce; solids and sauce are spooned onto a dinner plate already prepared with a bed of rice.
Here are a few of the standouts among the meat dishes. Roghan josh is a curry with tender chunks of meticulously trimmed lamb braised in a subtly flavored, velvety sauce with cream and yogurt. This is a delicate dish -- nothing fried, and with a sauce that's intrinsically not overly hot. Kheema matar is a mixture of chunky, lean ground beef and green peas in a many-layered, multi-layered sauce of great depth, fragrant with coriander and ginger. Murgh palak is chicken sauce that's flavored and colored with pureed spinach. Here's a case in which spinach becomes an inseparable part of a sauce, not just an adjunct to it. Murgha korma is chicken in a yogurt-based sauce with tomato. But the real standout among the chicken dishes is makhmi murg, with a marvelous butter-cream-tomato sauce that's lightly thickened with what feels to the tongue like a paste of crushed nuts. Raisins and chopped nuts add to the textural contrast and give a touch of sweetness. You may need an extra order of Italian bread to sop up all this glory.
Among the vegetable entrees, kabuli chana consists of chickpeas in a mild, bright, tomato-based sauce. Another delicately flavored sauce accompanies matar paneer, a sauteed mixture of green peas and paneer, a compressed Indian cheese that resembles a dense cream cheese. One of the pitfalls with this popular Indian dish is allowing the cheese to get hard and rubbery, but there was no such problem at the Bombay Curry House. If you want to sample how Indian cooking uses coconut milk in sauces, try patta gobi, cabbage cooked in a smooth, coconut-based sauce.
In addition to the usual selection of domestic beer and wine, Golden Eagle, an Indian beer, is available. Don't let the $2.25 price on the menu scare you away; it's for a 22-ounce bottle. We found Golden Eagle's lightness and lack of flavor more akin to American beers than to most imports.
A final note. This is a family-run restaurant that seats only about 30 people and seems to suffer from a mild but chronic shortage of staff. Even on a quiet weekday night the service tends to be a little absent-minded, erratic and slow. (It's a nicely quiet little place, though, so the waits make good conversational interludes.) Be tolerant, have patience and try to visit on a weekday if you can. It's worth it.