Graceful dishes dulled by a graceless setting

Restaurant CriticAugust 13, 2004 

Though the dining scene has unquestionably kept up with our region's explosive population growth, we do get the occasional abrupt reminder that we've got a long way to go before we catch up with New York. Sure, we boast an enviable variety of options for a region our size. But we lack the sheer numbers to support the avant-garde and the most esoteric ethnic cuisines.

Champaben Bhagad learned this the hard way in the spring of last year, when he had to close Bombay Eatery barely a year after opening. According to Bhagad, the vegetarian menu, which limited its offering to dishes from the Gujarat region in western India, never found a sufficient following to make ends meet.

"Gujarati people eat Gujarati food at home a lot of the time," Bhagad says. "When they go out to eat, most of the time they want to eat something else. There just weren't enough Gujarati customers."

And, let's face it, how many of the rest of us even know what Gujarati food is?

So, when Bhagad reopened Bombay Eatery in June, he scrapped the Gujarati menu and replaced it with a pan-Indian bill of fare whose something-for-everyone offerings span the continent from northern curry to southern dosa.

Vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes are amply represented. The appetizer list is peppered with chaat, snacks popular in India but a rarity hereabouts. A category is devoted to Indo-Chinese fare. Even the dessert offering is among the broadest around, with a rotating selection including not just the usual rasmalai and gulab jamun but also Indian ice creams and halva (carrot or walnut).

And yes, you'll also find a few Gujarati dishes such as undhiu, a spicy vegetable melange, scattered among the vegetarian selections.

For all the variety of its menu, however, I'm afraid I wouldn't bet against the second incarnation of Bombay Eatery going the same way as the first.

The problem doesn't lie with the menu, which truly aims to please all. Nor with the food, which for the most part is average or better. It's just that Bombay Eatery is, to put it bluntly, a downright dreary place to eat a meal.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the dining room's shoestring-budget decor, which I accept as par for the course for a start-up ethnic restaurant. I'm talking about a general dinginess, amplified by dim lighting from bare bulbs -- plus burned-out bulbs -- in ceiling fans. I'm talking about feeling as if you're sitting under the sword of Damocles if you're seated under the wobbliest of those fans (which my wife and I were, both times we visited, though both times we were the only customers -- another ominous sign). I'm talking about walking in and being greeted by the stark stainless steel of the lunchtime buffet table, which sits unused and undisguised at night.

Service, which is slow and awkward at best and annoying (including a waiter who stands over your table while you ponder the menu and doesn't leave until you have ordered something) at worst, doesn't help matters.

It's a shame, because the food --much of it, anyway -- deserves a better setting. Baigan bharta, for one, is a marvel of balanced flavors starring eggplant in a creamy, pea-studded curry whose spicy notes are restrained enough to allow the eggplant to shine. But how many people will peek in the front door and leave straightaway, without ever experiencing the dish?

And how many will fail to discover that the potato, onion and chutney filling of the mysore masala dosa is the most generous around? Or that its vegetarian Hyderabadi biryani delivers a mound of cumin-fragrant rice spangled with carrots, zucchini and sugar snap peas?

Lamb kurma isn't stellar, but it's satisfying, serving up rustic chunks of meat in a complex, almond-thickened sauce.

Not that the kitchen isn't without its inconsistencies. The Indo-Chinese specialty chile chicken lives up to its fiery promise but is marred by dry nuggets of batter-fried chicken. And the chicken is way too salty in chicken ginger.

On the other hand, chole bature, chickpeas simmered in a ginger-perfumed tomato "gravy" with a pair of whole-wheat puri for dipping, is a delightfully addictive starter. So is bhel puri, a confetti of puffed rice, chickpea crisps, onion, tomato and cilantro dressed with sweet and hot chutneys.

But who will even get as far as the appetizer list if nobody stays long enough to order?*

Reach Greg Cox at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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