By Laine Doss
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Bombay Darbar Indian Restaurant inhabits a neat, neighborly room with 34 seats, linen-draped tables, a tile floor, and pale-yellow walls judiciously adorned with Indian art. Alfresco dining on Commodore Plaza permits patrons to peer at passersby and speculate on "For Sale" signs posted in the shop windows of Chicago's Bakery & Deli, Chicago's Steakhouse, Cita's Italian Chop House, and the Ivy at the Grove — all just a roti's throw from the patio, which by the way used to belong to another Indian restaurant, Anokha.
Diners can crunch on crisp papadum wafers served with mint chutney and a marinated pink onion/tomato mix while perusing a menu that treads the usual terrain of tikkas, tandooris, and vindaloos. We tried a few of the tandoor-baked breads — a white-flour nan, wheat-flour paratha, and, best of the lot, a soft, fluffy, onion-flecked kulcha nan.
Dinner officially began with the arrival of two brightly flavored vegetable samosas padded with potatoes, green peas, and, much to the discontent of a dining guest, plenty of cilantro. Tamarind dip gets served alongside, as does a dense mango chutney that is less sweet and more complex than those generally found in restaurants. The same tamarind sauce arrives alongside paneer pakora, a deep-fried snack of soft cheese (paneer) squares dipped in unduly thick chickpea batter — which somewhat subdued the cheese's mild taste.
3195 Commodore Plaza
Coconut Grove, FL 33133
Region: Coconut Grove
Tandoori chicken wings are another of the half-dozen starters, but we went with the entrée rendition, a quartered half-bird served smoking-hot atop onions on a sizzling metal platter. The chicken was moist and blushed the customary orange/red hue from marinating in turmeric-tinged yogurt further flavored with ginger, garlic, and spices.
Why chicken makhani is called "butter chicken" can be ascertained in one bite of Bombay's über-rich version, morsels of breast meat bobbing in a coral-colored sauce conjured from tomatoes, cashews, yogurt, and, yes, butter. Ghee whiz, it's good! Another northern classic, lamb rogan josh, features a faithful rendering of boneless lamb cubes seared in hot oil and braised with tomatoes, Kashmir peppers, and a blend of curry spices; yogurt is in the mix too, but you can't really tell. The yellow lentil dish known as dal tadka, one of numerous vegetarian offerings, was a tad thin in consistency and, as is tradition, somewhat bland. Still, thin green curry leaves are laced throughout, registering along with mild notes of mustard and cumin seeds.
Few Indians living outside Goa consume vindaloo, a fiery curry dish generally made with meat. We ordered a fish version prepared with basa, which is a vegetarian Vietnamese catfish with pearly white flakes and a mild flavor somewhat similar to cod (cheaper too, and as such has been known to get deceptively switched into English fish and chips). My mistake: The subtle basa taste never made it to the surface, drowned by assertive seasonings — even though it came "mildly spiced," as requested.
Waiters inquire as to desired degree of heat: mild, medium, high-medium, spicy, very spicy. We found the ends of the continuum just fine, but midrange dishes tended to arrive one level mellower than ordered; our "medium" rogan josh was mild, and a "high-medium" lamb biryani tasted more like "low-medium." Still, we enjoyed the fruit-and-nut-laden, clove-accented biryani rice with bits of tamarind and soft pieces of meat. An accompanying cup of cucumber-yogurt raita included tomato and cilantro (I've never seen that before) and was disconcertingly gloppy, as though made with lots of corn starch; the problem might lie with the homemade nature of the yogurt.
The short wine list includes few out-of-the-ordinary choices, but the markup is double or less. You can uncork a spice-friendly Sauvignon Blanc for less than $30, but nothing is spice-friendlier than a cold Kingfisher beer. Sweet mango lassi with a slight yogurt tang is on hand too.
Pistachio kulfi was not, so we indulged instead in ras malai — a pair of soft, sweet white-cheese patties in cream sauce subtly perfumed with the scent of rosewater. Syrup-soaked gulab jamun milk balls are more potently imbued with rose. If you're not into flowery finishes, try gajar halwa, a dome of sweetened carrots studded with cashews and raisins. Better yet, try a couple, for they're only $4 or $5 apiece.
Prices might seem steep for this particular ethnic food, but they are in line with competing Indian joints around town: breads $3 to $5, starters $4 to $7, most entrées $13 to $18. Perhaps more pertinent, dinner will cost less here than at restaurants serving other types of cuisine of equal caliber.
Husband/wife owners Danny and Nan, natives of Mumbai (Bombay), worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years. Now they attend to their own place, hosting and helping out every night since Bombay's January opening. Their caring spirit flows into the friendly and efficient service staff, and a comforting mom-and-pop spirit prevails. We only suggest getting rid of the incense, whose intensity assaults the olfactory senses in a manner not conducive to appreciating food. Otherwise, Bombay Darbar's clean cuisine is a delightful breath of fresh air in stale Coconut Grove.