We knew we were in for a treat after a few minutes inside Bombay Garden: A basket of warm, crispy lentil wafers, mildly spiced with garlic, arrived. They were accompanied by two sauces--a coriander and mint, yogurt-based one with a kick, and a sweet, brown chutney of dates, tamarind and roasted cumin seeds. Our taste buds came alive. We nibbled as we perused the menu.
For an appetizer, we ordered vegetable samosa chat: two large dumplings stuffed with aloo matar, a peas-and-potatoes mixture, served with chickpeas in a mint-and-tamarind sauce. They were baked, not fried, and flaky. We also tried seekh kebab, two shish kebabs of minced lamb spiced with coriander that arrived on a silver plate set over a brass warming pot. Clearly, the kitchen knew much about the importance of presentation.
Choosing an entree was challenging. The 38 choices included tandoori specialties, baked in a clay oven; curries--spicy, sauce-based dishes; and vegetarian favorites such as navrattan korma, fresh vegetables and dried fruit cooked in sauce.
Chicken tikka malai ($9.95) arrived as moist, slightly chewy boneless pieces that had been cooked, then char-broiled. Lamb kadai ($10.95) came in a soup-size bowl over a brass warming pot, bite-size tender chunks with tomatoes, onions, garlic, pepper, herbs and spices.
A sampler platter, Bombay thali ($13.95), arrived on a silver serving tray that held five small bowls as well as basmati rice and lacha paratha, a whole wheat bread similar to pita. We were delighted that our server, Gavi Salvatierra, of Annandale, explained the contents of each small dish: chicken, lamb, matar paneer (homemade cheese with green peas in sauce), aloo gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes steamed with masala, onions and tomatoes), and raita (homemade whipped yogurt seasoned with grated cucumbers and roasted cumin seeds).
All the entrees came with basmati rice with a pinch of saffron, plus salads of grated cabbage and sliced tomato.
Partway through the meal, we realized that the chef himself had delivered some of our dishes. Anand Bhandari, smartly attired in white dress shirt and black pants, had been tossing an apron on and off, preparing dishes for four tables of diners. (Reader Ben Gimeno of Manassas, one of more than a dozen readers who recommended the restaurant, said he keeps returning because the owners "treat every client like a special guest.")
Bombay Garden, which opened Feb. 4 on Centreville Road in Manassas, is owned by Bhandari and by Raj Kapoor. The restaurant is their livelihood and their love. Kapoor went to a family wedding on a recent weekend, but he said that neither he nor Bhandari has taken a day off, except for the Fourth of July, since the place opened.
Bhandari, 38, who lives in Arlington, said he first came to the United States in 1985 to cook Indian cuisine at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As Kapoor explained, Bhandari is modest. In fact, Bhandari, the executive chef at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi, had been recruited for the event and sponsored by a restaurant owner who knew of his culinary reputation for excellence. Bhandari cooked for more than 4,000 people at the Folklife Festival, winning many accolades.
Bhandari comes from a family of cooks and restaurateurs in India, the United States and Australia. His father is a chef. What sets his cooking apart, it seems, is his meticulous adherence to quality ingredients and cutting no corners in the kitchen.
Kapoor, 40, lives in Manassas. He worked for a long time at Carmello's and Little Portugal in Old Town Manassas and owned Viva Italiano in Springfield before selling it last year to open Bombay Garden, he said. He explained the secret to Bombay's Northern Indian cuisine: "Anand makes purees of tomato, onions, yogurts. All the food is fresh. We try to avoid butter and oil."
Neither do they overwhelm food with spices. "A lot of people are scared of Indian cooking," Kapoor explained. "They think it's too spicy. They say they tried it once and it is very hot."
Kapoor said he delights in converting people who think they don't like Indian food. But if you like very spicy foods and request them, the chef will gladly accommodate.
"We try to do lower spices, American style, so people can enjoy the food," Kapoor said.
Each day, Bhandari grinds and mixes combinations of the 240 spices kept at the restaurant. No pre-mixed combinations are used, ensuring that the freshest spices flavor the food.
On hand always are flours for the six breads made hot and fresh when you order. We tried naan, a leavened white flour bread that arrived hot and slightly browned. Traditionally, this and other breads are used to wipe up the sauces in curry dishes such as the lamb kadai we ordered. Bhandari also makes naan topped with fresh garlic and aloo paratha, wheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas.
We wished we had ordered a shrimp or trout or lamb chop dish, because everything was so good we wanted more. But portions were generous; dessert wasn't a possibility.
Rice kheer, rice cooked in milk with raisins, pistachios and almonds, and gulab jamun, a warm dumpling dipped in rose-flavored syrup, sounded yummy. (One reader strongly recommends the banana sorbet.)
There's also mango lassi, a yogurt and fruit drink. "In India, when the weather goes up to 110 degrees, this cools you down," Kapoor said.
To sample a variety of Indian food, take advantage of Bombay Garden's lunch buffet, ($6.95) Mondays through Fridays, or champagne brunch Sundays ($12.95). Kapoor said he has had good feedback about two special dinners pairing foods with appropriate wines; each were attended by 10 couples. Kapoor said he hopes to hold wine dinners every three months.
* Address: 9007 Centreville Rd., Manassas, 703-365-7744.
* Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily, with lunch buffet served Monday to Friday and champagne brunch Sundays; dinner, Mondays through Saturdays 5-10 p.m., Sunday, 4:30-9:30 p.m.
* Credit cards: All. No personal checks.
* Prices: Breads and appetizers, $1-$5.50; entrees, $6.50-$13.95. Weekday lunch, $6.95. Sundays, $12.95. Full carryout menu. Our bill for three meals with two appetizers came to $63.71 with tip.
* Children's menu: None; breads and appetizers are $1-$5.50, and smaller dish portions are about $5.
* Low-fat selections: Many choices; no oils or butters are used.
* Health-conscious: The best anywhere; great variety for vegetarians.
* Atmosphere: White tablecloth, intimate, but casual dress acceptable.
* Downside: The building has a neon sign but is not distinctive; it's located near a McDonald's. Front parking lot is small; more parking is available in back.
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CAPTION: Raj Kapoor, co-owner of Bombay Garden, greets patrons when he's not overseeing the dining room.