In an era of ever-increasing dining diversity, the American culinary melting pot has been slow to incorporate Indian cuisine. No fusion chef would dream of entering into the kitchen without Thai lemongrass and Japanese ponzu. Moles and ceviches are popping up everywhere, and you can have anything from duck confit to pulled pork bundled up in a spring roll. And yet, the only real inroad Indian cooking has made into American culinary consciousness has been in the form of chicken or seafood spiced up with a little curry powder.
But that shouldn't be the case for too much longer, and the arrival of Bombay Indian Restaurant on Rivers Avenue should help the process along. It's an authentic Indian restaurant, modest in style but bright in flavor, with a representative sampling of the nation's diverse, multifaceted cuisine.
It's worth stopping in just for the naan ($2). Baked on the sides of a clay tandoor oven, it has a golden crispy exterior and magnificently soft interior. You can also get it topped with garlic ($2.50) or stuffed with onions ($2.50) or paneer ($3.50), but it's so elementally perfect on its own it seems unnecessary to doctor it up.
The lamb samosas (two for $5) are essential, too: a blend of finely minced spiced lamb and green peas wrapped in a dome of pastry and fried to a golden brown. The fried dough is tinged yellow with turmeric and has a great doughnut-like texture — crispy outside but chewy once you get into it — and it's filled not with sweetness but a superb savory mix of lamb and spices.
A glass of masala iced tea ($2.50), flavored with a touch of ginger and cardamom, is the only East-meets-West fusion in sight. The entrées include a dozen chicken, lamb, and seafood dishes that represent the standards of Indian cuisine — spicy vindaloos, creamy curries, and nutty kormas.
The chicken tikka masala ($12.95) has big chunks of chicken simmered in a tomato cream sauce that is pleasingly silky and, despite the bright orange-hued spices, surprisingly mild. More exotic is the goat curry ($14), with small chunks of mutton in a thick brown curry sauce made creamy and slightly sweet with coconut milk. The savory spices help subdue the woolly flavor of the goat and merge it all into a warm whole, and though the many small bones still clinging to the meat can be a bit hard to navigate around, it's very much worth the effort for the deep, rich flavor.
India boasts one of the world's great vegetarian cuisines, and Bombay has a generous selection of 16 vegetarian entrées ranging from paneer makhani (chunks of Indian-style cottage cheese in a creamy sauce, $12) to aloo mutter (potatoes and peas in a curry sauce, $9). My particular favorites are the dal (lentils) dishes, like the dal makhani ($10), with black lentils in a creamy sauce, and kadai dal ($10), with yellow lentils in a thin tomato and onion sauce.
The tandoori chicken ($10 half, $16 whole), in a bit of restaurant theatrics borrowed from Tex-Mex joints, arrives at the table hissing and steaming on a big cast iron fajita skillet. The mounds of sliced onion and green peppers are unnecessary, but the chicken itself is splendid. Marinated in yogurt and spices and then cooked in the super-hot tandoor, it comes out juicy and tender with a deep, eye-popping red color and great crispy black bits around the edges from the hot tandoor. Like all the entrées, it's accompanied by a wonderful white jasmine rice, the grains ultra-long and fluffy and lightly tossed with spices, along with crispy papadum and three fragrant chutneys.
The only weak spot for me is the shrimp biryani ($14), a purloo-like dish of shrimp cooked with rice and spices, which is just a little too plain and lacks the vibrance of the other dishes.
All told, there are close to 50 entrées on Bombay's menu, a perfect embodiment of the tyranny of choice. Fortunately, at lunch there's a buffet option. Ordinarily I would shy away from buffets, since they usually mean trading quality for quantity, bypassing freshly prepared dishes in favor of stuff that's been sitting on a steam table for hours. Indian food, however, with its many dishes with meat or vegetables slow simmered in aromatic sauces, naturally lends itself to the chafing dish, and in India itself, even expensive high-end restaurants feature long, impressive buffets.
Bombay's lunch buffet ($8) is a bargain and a great way to sample an array of Indian dishes, since its rotating selection includes many of the better items from the dinner menu. Included in the price is naan and soup, and you can wrap things up with kheer (a rice and coconut milk pudding) or gulab jamun, orbs of milk-soaked dough fried a golden brown and served in an ultra-sweet honey syrup.
The decor at Bombay is modest: linoleum floor, drop ceiling, basic white china, and stainless steel flatware. The walls are painted vibrant green and red with tapestries of the Taj Mahal. Green and red-striped vinyl booths spruce things up a little, but the food, not the atmosphere, is the key to the experience.
Adjoining the restaurant is Bombay Bizar, an Indian grocery. For the growing community of Indian ex-pat families in Charleston, it's an essential source for bulk staples, vegetables, and prepackaged sauces and meals. For non-Indians who have developed a taste for the food of the subcontinent while traveling abroad, it's a welcome treasure trove of authentic ingredients like dried peppers and yellow lentils that are hard to find in local supermarkets or even gourmet food stores. And you can buy that uniquely long-grained jasmine rice in bulk.
Many American diners have shied away from Indian food because they think it's too spicy, but the real factor is not the heat of the spices (and at Bombay you can moderate things by ordering dishes "mild") but rather their unfamiliarity to local palates. Cardamom, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, and turmeric — it's a fragrant, alluring array of flavors, combinations that are strange and unusual at first but, with just a little time for introduction, really grow on you.
For years, Charleston has muddled by with just two Indian restaurants, curiously located within a block of each other on Savannah Highway in West Ashley. The addition of Bombay helps spread those unique flavors geographically and brings a dose of fresh energy. It's a real boon for North Charleston, adding a new cuisine to the emerging corridor of international restaurants that line Rivers Avenue, and it's a fine opportunity for Charlestonians to acquire a taste for the classic flavors of India.