Restaurant Reviews

Mixed Masala

Certain kinds of eateries are irresistible to certain types of restaurant reviewers. What I can't pass up is weirdness — places that serve unlikely, usually global combinations. This siren song somehow persists perennially for me, even though decades of exploration (in joints ranging from New York's first Japanese/French restaurants to an unforgettable German sushi meal in Vienna) has taught me that such culinary combinations often don't work. At best, in these international smorgasbord places, that attempt to be all things to all people results in the food of one country being okay while the rest, generally, is laughably awful. But at worst, the dining experiences are awfully funny. And fun counts.

Hence there's no need to explain the waves of delight — and dread — engendered by a first look at the menu of Taste of Bombay. As well as Indian dishes, the restaurant appears to serve Thai, Chinese, and Italian food — the latter two of the sweet-and-sour and spaghetti-and-meatballs ilk. Recent months have seen the addition of sushi and Filipino food, and so it became clear that further resistance was futile.

A recent visit proved totally anticlimactic; only Indian food was available. "Just Indian chef in kitchen," explained our very genial, though English-challenged, server. "Other chefs take vacation, come back maybe ... never. But maybe two weeks, or months."

Okay. Meanwhile what's available at Taste of Bombay is Miami's predictable selection of northern Indian dishes. Because they are fairly expensive — the cheapest vegetarian entrée is nearly $10, seafood closer to $20 — the best bet by far is the lunch buffet, served until midafternoon daily (except Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed). Priced the same as a single vegetarian entrée, the all-you-can-eat spread includes six main dishes (which change daily but are always a mix of vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish) plus vegetable pakoras, salad (the standard Cuban iceberg lettuce/tomato type), clove-studded rice, two chutneys (hot mint and sweet/sour tamarind), dessert, and — the one item not on a steam table — warm, appealingly flaky, butter-drizzled nan bread.

Food quality was spotty. The fried mixed vegetable (though mostly cauliflower) pakora fritters were flavorful but rather sodden, owing to their being stone cold, which was a general problem. Heat sources didn't seem up to warming the huge quantities of food in the buffet's chafing dishes. This problem most dramatically afflicted a goat curry — tender though mostly gelatinous meat chunks (typical of hoof/leg cuts) whose "sauce" seemed pure semicongealed oil.

A strong fishy flavor overwhelmed all spices in the buffet's seafood offering, a generic fish curry. The firm-textured main ingredient, which appeared to be kingfish, was overcooked and thus unpalatably dry. The lentils in dal makani, in contrast, were undercooked. Though the slightly crunchy legumes were not unpleasant, the preparation's saucelike component could not have come, as it is supposed to, from mashing a portion of these bulletproof grams. Indeed the oddly whitish purée seemed sticky, as if flour-thickened.

Other items were much better. Chole (a.k.a. chana masala) was an appealing version of the Punjabi/northwestern Indian chickpea dish, cooked properly dry with just enough chili tingle and citrus tang. And bhindi was good enough to make okra haters take back all the nasty things they've said about the often-slimy pods. The okra pieces — bright green instead of grayish, as in most overcooked American preparations, and crisp rather than mucilaginous — were enhanced with tomatoes and onion, creating a startlingly refreshing summer stew.

Especially winning was chicken makhani (a.k.a. murgh makhani, or butter chicken), which has to be among the world's most lux dishes for leftovers. Fans speak of it in words generally reserved for experiences unmentionable even in an alternative newsweekly. (Its preparation is basically a "Don't try this at home, kids" thing, because of its labor-intensiveness; it begins with tandoori chicken.) It suffices to say that Taste of Bombay's rich and creamy version, highly spiced but not overly spicy, is suitably sensual.

Dessert, gulab jamin (deep-fried flour-bound milk balls in syrup, sort of like exotic Asian doughnut holes), was also excellent — ultralight, not too sugary.

À la carte orders of matar paneer (peas and Indian farmer cheese in sauce drier than that of the chicken, but equally spice-rich) and onion nan were also good, but not superior enough to the buffet items to justify the expense. So stick to the Indian smorgasbord table, at least until the international madness resumes here. The Japanese chef seems to have disappeared indefinitely, but plans are for the Thai menu to return, along with some Filipino dishes, come high season. And a small annex being renovated next door is scheduled to open within weeks (pending permitting and construction hassles). It will serve Chinese food — and pizza.

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Pamela Robin Brandt