1835 K St. NW. 331-0111.
Open for lunch noon until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday;
buffet from noon until 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; dinner until 11
p.m. Friday and Saturday. All major credit cards accepted.
Special lunches $9.95 to $12.95; appetizers $1.25 to $6.95,
entrees $4.95 to $16.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip
about $35 a person.
WASHINGTON'S RESTAURANTS are going in circles. French and Italian restaurants are moving off K Street and down in price range, to be replaced with the kinds of restaurants that were once routinely considered bargains but are now moving into upper price ranges. In this case it is Indian restaurants that have joined the $25-a-lunch ranks.
Bombay Palace is part of a 10-restaurant chain, and while it doesn't look it, it does taste it. The food ranges from quite good to just short of dreadful, and, given the number of good Indian restaurants in Washington that serve routinely good food at very reasonable prices, you'd have to care a lot about atmosphere and location to put Bombay Palace on your list.
The dinner menu lists five appetizers, or you can order "assorted Indian snacks," which includes several of the appetizers. There are also two soups and some stuffed flat breads that could serve as appetizers. I tried the appetizer assortment, which looked charming under a blanket of that crisp wafer called papadum, but the papadum covered a lot of flaws. The kebabs -- minced herbed meat shaped into logs -- tasted old and tired. Pakoras -- vegetable fritters -- tasted like unidentifiable fried stuff. Samosas were big, generously stuffed meat turnovers but they were soggy and bland. And tikka was dried out red-tinged chicken cubes -- a sorry plateful. Individually ordered another day, the items tasted no better, and the other appetizers I tried were even less appealing.
In fact, the best parts of the first course were the pale, yogurt-based mint chutney and the puckery lemon pickle.
As for the onion-stuffed bread, its dough is nicely puffy, chewy and wheaten, and the onion filling is boldly sharp and peppery, but the whole is more greasy than one would expect. And another bread, stuffed with lamb, had little taste of filling. In sum, the breads themselves are good but the fillings vary; a safer bet are the four plain breads.
Main courses read poetically, with their spices enumerated and their sauces described as "spicy creams" or "tangy and sharp." You savor them in the reading. In person, however, they often fall short. Chicken tandoori had little flavor, and its texture was both dry and mushy. Fish tikka had more flavor, but it was the flavor of overripe fish. Chicken came out better when it was diced, as in chicken tikka. And tandoori prawns, though no more pungently seasoned than the chicken, were big, juicy shrimps carefully timed in their cooking.
Then there are the sauced dishes such as lamb with onion, ginger, garlic and mild spices; lamb with spinach; butter chicken and chicken keema masala -- labeled the Bombay Palace Special. They all had something to recommend them but not much. The lamb was well trimmed and nicely cooked; however, its sauces were not only mild but uninteresting. I have had better at half the price in Arlington or Georgetown's Indian restaurants. Butter chicken tasted more of yogurt than of butter. Seekh kebab was pasty in texture. Chicken keema masala was almost delicious -- the minced chicken heavily laced with julienned ginger, brightened with green peas and complex with other seasonings. But it was strongly oversalted, and the chicken sat in a pool of red oil, which congealed as it cooled. The only main dish of distinction was a biryani, fragrant with saffron and spices, prettily studded with nuts. And while the food was impressively garnished and presented, it was disappointing to see pale, tasteless tomatoes on the plate during tomato season.
If these dishes were less expensive and served in less grand surroundings, they would be considered decent neighborhood Indian restaurant food. But they don't match the elegance, flair and subtlety of dishes I had this summer at Shezan (though that restaurant has been sold, and I don't know whether its quality has been maintained) or at Apana.
It is also a matter of overselling. A waiter one night suggested the "Indian cheesecake" for dessert. It turned out to be rasmalai, which are damp, chewy cottage cheese balls flavored with rosewater, a long way from what the guests
expected as cheesecake.
That is one example of what is wrong with the service at Bombay Palace. Waiters are suave and distinguished looking in black tie, and they can serve with expertise. But they appear erratically: For some time you may not be able to catch a waiter's eye, then you might have three or four people suddenly serving or clearing your table simultaneously. I have waited in vain for service while one waiter set up tables and three others stood talking at the bar.
What is interesting about Bombay Palace is the dining room itself. Formerly the site of Piccolo Mondo, which was already handsome, it has been transformed into a lovely cave of aqua, with a collection of magnificent little brass animals suspended in arched niches along the walls. Soft Indian music plays. The tables are set with pink cloths and exotic flowers.
A lot of money has been lavished on the Bombay Palace. The company has even published its own cookbook. But somebody should keep a closer watch on the details of the execution as the owner goes on to open restaurants in Paris, Boston and Bombay. As a press release announced, "His dream of creating the largest network of Indian restaurants in the world is fast becoming a reality."
It's no comfort to know that the same dry tandoori chicken you're eating is being served all over the world.