Bengal's contemporary two-level space is lovely. Walls of pastel mint green are minimally adorned with brightly colored sconces that illuminate the restaurant at night; during lunchtime, a soothing natural light comes in courtesy of floor-to-ceiling storefront windows. Tables on terrazzo floors are topped with white linen over maroon undercloths that match burgundy banquette seating. Bollywood music videos summon sound and fury on a high-def TV set.
The food, unfortunately, is decidedly low-def.
There is no shortage of traditional Indian spicing: cloves, cardamom, cinnamon; bay leaves, nutmeg, mace; coriander, mustard, fenugreek; ginger, garlic, ghee. Yet the cuisine is neither bright nor well defined — nor does it arrive steaming or sizzling or crackling with lip-smacking allure. The vibrant, multitextured bouquet of flavors, usually derived from blends of whole or freshly ground spices, is absent. Bengal's seasonings don't leap on the tongue like a tiger; they meander as meekly as a kitten.
During two recent visits, some of the offerings were likable as a kitten too. Crackly and peppery papadum wafers that preceded the meal tasted fresh from the fryer; so did a trio of vegetable samosas, large pyramids filled with a very mellow blend of peas, potatoes, carrots, and lima beans (some dabs of bright green mint-and-cilantro sauce on the side helped awaken the subdued flavors). A tandoori kebab sampler tendered two shrimp and a couple of cubes each of chicken breast and lamb — each pair tender and tame. We especially enjoyed the mulligatawny soup (bastardized from the Tamil milagu-tannir, meaning "pepper water"), a thin, delicate purée of lentils emanating gentle notes of ginger, garlic, and coriander; broth-swelled rice and soft cubes of poached chicken nestled at the bottom of the bowl.
Chicken tandoori was the low point of our sojourns. The leg and thigh were so small and meatless one might wonder if the bird being served was sparrow, and the turmeric-tinted tandoori spicing was stronger in color than taste; most of the plate was taken up with basmati rice. Fifteen dollars ($13 at lunch) is an awful lot to charge for an anemic chicken, especially in a city rife with Pollo Tropical.
Vegetable biryani also missed the mark. The mound of orange rice was speckled with peas, green beans, potatoes, carrots, and raisins, but tasted like the stuff that shows up alongside refried beans on a Mexican combo platter. Shrimp vindaloo didn't woo us either — plump crustaceans bathed in an aptly aromatic tomato-based sauce, but bereft of the customary chili pepper punch. Lamb rogan josh boasted a wee bit of bite, its stewed cubes of meat savorily smothered in a mustard-hued sauce of cumin, turmeric, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and yogurt.
Bengal's chicken kurma met the basic standards for this dish, that being moist nuggets of poultry in a mild, creamy sauce with nut-infused taste. However, "Kashmiri pulao" — saffron/fruit/nut-flecked rice that was to accompany the kurma — turned out to be basmati minimally flaked with coconut and almonds.
I would have less of a problem with the "chef's platter of five different vegetarian dishes" if the restaurant name were Bengal Old-Style Indian Cuisine. The combo on this occasion encompassed mushy eggplant with tomatoes; a mushy mix of lentils and spinach in a tasty tomato-based sauce (shaag dal); mushy peas with mushrooms and potatoes in a tomato-based sauce; mixed vegetables in a tomato-based sauce; and chickpeas cooked with a welcome kick of cayenne (chana masala). All are customary Indian vegetable preparations and each exuded customary Indian flavors, but because Bengal is billed as modern cuisine, why not include a crunchy-fresh vegetable sauté or an innovative twist on tradition that we haven't yet seen — or at the very least, a little more variation in texture and taste?
If you want to know if desserts are available, the question to ask is "Got milk?" (On second thought, maybe not. The staff is congenial and for the most part competent, but some waiters are obviously inexperienced; a query such as this might throw them off their already precarious game.) Bengal's trio of offerings are mango kulfi, an ice cream made with milk and sugar; gulab jamun, two soft spheres of spongy pastry (made with milk and honey) seriously soaked in sugar syrup; and rasmalai, a delicious disk of creamy homemade white cheese served in a sauce of sweetened, reduced milk dotted with chopped almonds and pistachios.
Entrées range from $13.95 for the vegetable biryani to $21.95 for lamb chops; the general price hovers around $16. Add $3.50 for pan-fried paratha bread that bears resemblance to a thick whole-wheat tortilla, or $3.95 if you prefer a warm, fluffy round of garlic-studded nan bread that more closely resembles a large, soft bialy than the typical tandoor-charred version. Toss in $2.50 for a condiment such as cucumber-yogurt raita or mango chutney. An appetizer will run an average of $8, and you will likely request a beverage, for tap water here tastes like metal. Without dessert, and sans any of the Indian beers or moderately priced wines (that are thoughtfully listed with specific pairing suggestions) — but with tax and tip — the tab will likely tilt toward $40. That's expensive for an Indian dinner, and with prices only a couple of dollars less during the day, Bengal can take an even bigger chomp from lunchtime budgets. My guess is that this newcomer is going to have to try harder if it hopes to snare its share of the public's decreasing discretionary dining dollars.