Crumbling pappadums over your Indian food is something I picked up from a British guy who joined me for lunch at Bombay Brasserie on University. He says they do it all the time in England -- same idea as crushing up saltines in your soup. If you aim the cracker crumbs at the black lentil dal, you end up with a mixture that tastes like a more exotic version of tortilla chips with spicy refried beans.
The black lentils and the saag paneer are standouts on the lunch buffet at Bombay Brasserie. The day I ate there with my British friend, there was also chicken tandoori, chicken tikka masala, a made-before-your-eyes dish called tava chicken and a curry made with whole lamb chops. There was also the usual rice, hot nan bread, tamarind chutney, mint chutney, cucumber salad, raita and some marinated onions on hand, along with a rice pudding for dessert. But truth be told, it wasn't much of a selection.
"What do you expect for $10.95?" was my tablemate's response. He's right -- this is one of the cheapest Indian buffets in town. He was quite happy with the fare at Bombay Brasserie. He loved the chicken tikka masala, a British-Indian dish that tastes like cream of tomato soup -- and with good reason. Legend has it that it was invented when a customer in an English curry house asked for some gravy to put on a dried-out order of chicken tandoori. The insulted Indian chef is said to have added a little masala to Campbell's cream of tomato soup. And the rest is history.
There were several customers in scrubs at Bombay Brasserie the first time I ate lunch there. And that provided my lunchmate with an "aha" moment. "I wondered why they picked this location," he said. The restaurant is next door to Kubo's on the second story of the large shopping center in the middle of Rice Village. To reach it, you have to go through the parking garage. "Second-story locations are usually terrible for restaurants," he continued. "But this is now the closest Indian restaurant to the Medical Center."
The Bombay Brasserie on Richmond just outside the Loop was a large and well-appointed restaurant that burned down not long ago. If you liked the original, you will be underwhelmed by the new incarnation in the Village. The dining room is less than half the size of the old place.
There is a makeshift quality about the new location. Since Bombay Brasserie serves beer and wine only, the new owners decided not to use the dark polished wood bar left over from the last tenant. So they took away the barstools and employ the bar surface as a workspace where employees polish flatware, fold napkins and park the water and iced tea pitchers.
In other words, the architectural focal point of the restaurant has been turned into a prominent eyesore. A large-screen television mounted over the entrance to the restrooms hasn't helped either. Another TV screen facing the front window is employed in a misguided advertising effort.
The screen shows a continuous loop of dark brown, gloppy-looking Indian curries to passersby. I wonder how many would-be customers have changed their minds after looking at the disgusting tape and decided to go to Kubo's and eat some sushi instead.
On the cover of the to-go menu, there's a blurb that goes a long way toward explaining the temporary feeling of the new Bombay Brasserie location: "2nd Location opening soon on Richmond Ave." Evidently, this venue is a stopover while they rebuild the original.
Many Indian-food lovers complain that the meat-oriented Punjabi cuisine served by the Indian restaurants of Britain and the United States isn't really typical of Indian cooking. Punjabi food is indecorously served at rough-and-tumble roadside truck stops called dhabas. The fish and vegetables of Southern Indian cooking are a lot more elegant, critics maintain.
But you can't blame the popularity of Punjabi food entirely on the Western audience, according to the Web site www.food-india.com. Sure, English soldiers took a craving for curry back to Great Britain after serving in India, which set off a curry-house craze in Great Britain. But Punjabi food also became big in traditionally vegetarian Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in the '60s.
Punjabi immigrants became the shining stars of the Bollywood film industry, and their culture was imitated by movie fans. Meat-curious Mumbaites were already scarfing lamb and chicken at sidewalk Iranian kabob stands, so the Punjabi version of kabob and tandoori was an easy sell.
Bombay Brasserie comes by its Punjabi cuisine honestly. Narin Sehgal, the owner, is a longtime Houstonian who was born in Punjab. He opened the original restaurant on Richmond in October 1997. His son Sanjay Sehgal has taken charge of the new location in Rice Village.
On my second lunch at Bombay Brasserie, my tablemate took to calling it "the chicken four ways buffet." And indeed there were four kinds of chicken: the crispy chicken pakora that tasted like odd-shaped McNuggets, the juicy chicken tandoori with a bit of an acrid smoke aroma, the tava chicken, which was prepared to order and very tender, and the aforementioned Campbell's soup-flavored chicken tikka masala.
This time, instead of lamb chops in the lamb curry, there were ground lamb kabob chunks, or as my smart-aleck companion called them, "lamb leftovers du jour." It was a serviceable lunch buffet, but not a great lunch buffet.
But I really dreaded going to Bombay Brasserie for dinner. How many times have you returned to an Indian place where you enjoyed a great lunch buffet only to find that each and every item on the dinner menu costs as much as the entire buffet?
In fact, the ratio at Bombay Brasserie is even worse. The best things I ate for dinner there, prawn Madras at $15.95 and lamb vindaloo at $14.95, cost way more than the lunch buffet. And they came with nothing but pappadums and ice water on the side.
Yet dinner at Bombay Brasserie turned out to be by far the most enjoyable of my three visits. It wasn't all that expensive, either. The secret was taking six people to dinner and ordering the massive Viceroy of India's dinner for two.
The big spread costs $45 and it includes tandoori chicken, tandoori prawn, saag paneer, seekh kabob, chicken tikka, chicken tikka masala, dal, nan, rice and cucumber salad. To this we added the spicy prawns and fiery lamb vindaloo and ended up with a bill of $12.83 per person -- before the Kingfisher Indian beers.
The Viceroy spread supplies you with just about everything you'd find on the lunch buffet, only hotter, fresher and in a better presentation. We asked for the prawns and lamb extra-spicy, and they were the best things on the table.
Bombay Brasserie's prawn Madras is a sensational shrimp dish made with silky-textured long-cooked onions and spiked with mustard seed, cumin seed and a four-alarm dose of chiles and garlic.
The lamb vindaloo comes in a heady aromatic sauce loaded with chile peppers, ginger, garlic, cardamom, black pepper and a host of other spices. Loaded onto a triangle of hot nan spread with black lentil dal, it made a hell of a taco.
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