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Curries and Quietude

A brasserie that's anything but brassy

Mention of brasseries always puts me in mind of Paris: Baudelaire reading aloud from Les Fleurs du Mal ("The Devil pulls the strings by which we're worked"); Proudhon extolling anarchism; Manet defending Dejeuner sur l'Herbe; Sartre pounding the table while making a case for Stalin; Simone de Beauvoir pounding back. (Of the two of them, she was the better pounder.)

Brasseries have always drawn poets and revolutionaries or what, in our day, pass for such: parlor radicals, self-important windbags and "pundits" on Face the Nation. They tend to be raucous places. Unruly, even. Which makes the Bombay Brasserie such an anomaly. It's impossible to imagine Baudelaire in a place like this. Or, for that matter, pompous George Will. It's quiet here. Painfully so. I've been in livelier convents. The restaurant, open but a few months, is 37 tables in search of a clientele. No lines here. No cooling your heels in the bar for an hour. Which is something of a pity. Yes, it is funereal. (Whenever the waiter approached, I half expected him to sell me a casket.) But don't let that put you off. It's possible to eat badly in the Bombay Brasserie. But with a little care, it's also possible to eat very well.

The food here is not going to dazzle you. Nor is it likely to confound. (No one in the kitchen is in any danger of getting a medal for imagination.) But within the parameters it has set itself, the Bombay Brasserie more often than not delivers the goods. I do wish, though, that it weren't quite so circumspect. If you're someone whose idea of a good curry is one that leaves you gasping for breath and causes beads of blood to form on your forehead, you won't be disappointed by the menu's two super-hot vindaloo selections. But the other curry dishes are overly mild. Out of what I can only suppose is a fear of offending the American palate, the kitchen has dumbed down these curries. Which is bad news for those diners whose tastes fall somewhere in the middle. At the Bombay Brasserie, curries are either hot or they are bland.

Nor are these milder curries as complex as one would like. Yes, they have a certain worldliness about them, hitting the palate with something of a swagger. But that's about the size of it. To make an impression, curries don't have to inflict third-degree burns. But if calibrated properly, they should linger in the mouth a while. The curries here are the hit-and-run variety. One small explosion of flavor, and they're gone.

This brasserie draws its menu from several areas in India: Kashmir (lamb and poultry), Bengal (fish and desserts) and Madras (vegetarian dishes). It also employs a tandoor, described on the menu as "a pit oven made from choice clays and natural binding agents." Which raises a question: If the kitchen knows what a tandoor is, why hasn't someone there learned to use it properly? Typically, meats cooked tandoori-style are moist and succulent. The ones I tasted here -- chicken, lamb pieces and gosht-e-Seekh, ground lamb rolled into finger-length strips -- were neither, having about them a Saharan dryness. But how could they not? The kitchen, employing a kind of scorched-earth policy, had cooked the daylights out of them. (The chef might want to follow the example of a friend of mine who, when cooking meat, speaks to it. Meat needs love, she claims; it wants to be wooed, to hear sweet nothings, to be told that you prize it more than anything in the world. She's as crazy as a loon, of course. But you should taste those steaks!)

Other dishes were more satisfactory. I especially liked the lamb sagwala ($13.95), pieces of lamb cooked in creamed spinach, and murgh-e-Muslam ($11.95), a chicken curry so nicely nuanced, one tasted first the ginger, then the cloves, then the garlic and finally, all of them at once. With some wonderfully fragrant basmati rice and the Frisbee-shaped bread called nan, either dish makes a memorable meal. Watch the nan, though. It will make an addict of you quicker than anything. Served fresh from the oven, its surface of brown splotches gives it the appearance of an unusually large and robust crepe. And making it even more alluring, it's drenched in ghee, a clarified fat. (You can make ghee at home if you want to. But there is one problem: For optimum results, you're going to need buffalo milk.)

Best of all at the Bombay Brasserie are the vegetarian dishes, which, quite frankly, leave the chicken and lamb selections in the dust. The chef, whose treatment of meat is so dismissive, clearly loves vegetables. Three standouts are sag paneer ($9.95), pieces of fresh homemade cheese in creamed spinach; dal makhni ($8.95), black lentils cooked with onions and tomatoes; and Navrattan curry ($8.95), carrots, cheese, potatoes and peas in a sauce containing cream and nuts. Both the sag paneer and the dal makhni, by the way, are featured in the lunch buffet, an extravaganza of 19 dishes in all and, at $7.95, not a bad value. And do treat yourself to the Indian beer called Kingfisher. By no stretch of the imagination is it a great beer, and I can't even claim to like it very much. But oh, what a wonderful name! Who could possibly resist?

The Bombay Brasserie is a good-looking place. A large room with windows on two sides and a bar in the rear, it boasts a handsome stamped-tin ceiling and -- best of all -- well-spaced tables. "I like it," said my female companion. "There's room to swing a cat."

If you're not in a mood to choose from the menu, four complete dinners are available: The Maharaja, The Maharani of Jaipur's Pleasure, Shakahara Thali and The Viceroy of India. That last was something of a surprise. The people at the Bombay Brasserie bear their colonial overlords no ill will, apparently. Which, if true, does them enormous credit.

The Bombay Brasserie, 5160 Richmond, 355-2000.

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