Hours: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Starters $3-9, entrées $10-13
Fare: Northern Indian
Atmosphere: Bollywood screening room
Smoking: None permitted
Who can believe it's almost 2007 already? We're still caught up in the drama of 2006. It has been a topsy-turvy year -- personally, professionally and politically. With the holidays approaching, promising to throw us off kilter even further, we found ourselves looking for signs of balance in the universe.
We found one in busy Oakland, of all places. Here, an Indian restaurant we liked -- India Palace -- closed its doors. Later this year, another one, Bombay Grill, opened. See? Balance!
Bombay Grill offers its own experience of Indian dining, in some ways familiar, in others unique. It occupies a narrow, deep space on densely packed Semple Street; the room is decorated with fabric wall hangings and twinkle lights. But the dining area is dominated by a wide-screen TV tuned to Indian programs which for mesmerizing minutes defied us to look at our menus.
Once we were able to wrest our eyes from the screen, we found the menu plenty engrossing. Among the standard northern curries we've come to expect at Indian restaurants, we found chef's specials we'd never heard of, much less tried.
But first, the assorted-appetizer platter. Samosas -- turnovers filled with potatoes and peas -- were plump and pillowy, but without any meat in the filling, despite a menu description to the contrary. Pakoras were crispy fritters filled with more vegetables. In addition, there were individual slices of potato and eggplant and cauliflower florets fried in what seemed to be the same batter. These were delicious with the trio of chutneys -- green chili, tamarind and pickled onion -- that were served alongside.
Dumpakht, a chef's special, turned out to be Indian pot pie, making Jason's selection of entrée easy. Lamb, chicken and even lobster were on offer as fillings, but Jason chose beef beneath the crust. That crust, described on the menu as pastry, was more bready than flaky, with heft at the perimeter and a thinner stretch at the center. Although it didn't resemble any Indian bread with which we're familiar, it admirably filled the role, providing both a vehicle for the filling and a starchy balm to relieve its heat. The beef was pot-roast-tender and accompanied in the thick sauce by well-cooked strips of onion and green pepper.
Angelique ordered lamb dansak, a curry with spinach and chana (an Indian legume related to chick peas). Though the meat was tender and the curry mild, the lamb lacked the distinctive flavor we expect from this meat. The chana were smaller than garbanzos and, when chewed, lent each bite a thick, toothsome texture. Angelique found her first couple tastes on the salty side, but this was remedied by a few squeezes of lemon over the whole plate.
In general, we did not find the food at Bombay Grill to be red-alert spicy, but a couple dishes were too hot for our dining companions' timid palates, despite their request for no added spice. In the chicken biriyani, the chicken appeared to have been prepared with a spicy rub, while the basmati rice in which it was embedded was perfectly mild. The rice itself was nicely cooked, yellow with individual grains stained blaze orange by saffron. But the fried onions that are biriyani's calling card were overcooked, by turns papery and greasy. The accompanying raita (herbed yogurt) was both too sweet and too salty.
Our meal at Bombay Grill was pleasant, but uneven. On the one hand, it presented the opportunity to enjoy special dishes not available elsewhere. On the other, exceptional quality was, well, the exception. Now that Bombay Grill has restored balance to the universe, at least the small universe of Indian restaurants in Oakland, it needs to find a little more balance within.