Butter, cream and rich sauces usually are considered touchstones of the French kitchen, but if you were to use Lexington as your starting point, you might be tempted to think that Indian cuisine had cornered that market. At virtually all local restaurants cooking "subcontinental," everything from tikka to tandoori could arrive napped in something, and curries sometimes pack the wallop of a rich triple cream.
Such is the case at Bombay Bar & Grill, a favorite corner spot downtown formerly known as Bombay Brazier but now under the same ownership as the nearby Banana Leaf, a south Indian and Malaysian restaurant. Bombay's name notwithstanding, the menu focuses primarily on the northern part of the vast country, with a few southern dishes and some items that can be found almost everywhere.
There are 20 kinds of the Indian flat bread known as naan, ranging from plain to spiced to stuffed. Lovers of heat should try the chewy chili naan, not as blistered as I might want but packed with enough sliced jalapeño to make the simple "plain" version seem simpering.
Samosas, the popular and prevalent savory pastries, are delicious when filled with ground lamb.
Vegetable biryani, fragrant basmati rice cooked with the Indian clarified butter called ghee, cashews and almonds, pops with cardamom pods, cinnamon and cumin. The simple steamed rice is great, but biryani makes you feel like royalty.
Goa, a town near India's west coast about 250 miles south of Mumbai, is represented by a vegetable vindaloo whose psychedelically red vinegar sauce is packed with big cauliflower florets and hefty chunks of potato. Also hailing from the south come authentic sambar idli, light and fluffy rice cakes in a lentil broth. The deep-fried traditions near and dear to our own hearts can be found in the onion rings — ask for onion bhajis — dipped in chickpea batter.
But when you venture into the world of grill and gravies, you most likely will encounter a generous dose of those ingredients that make life, and food, richer.
Spinach, whether with the white Indian cheese called paneer or studded with chickpeas, has all the requisite curry seasonings with the consistency of thick creamed spinach. Yet another comparison came to mind at first taste of the bagara baigan of eggplant in coconut milk with ground peanuts and sesame seeds: Indonesian satay sauce, only full of curry flavor and far less sugary. The eggplant was terrific, with beautiful, paper-thin black skins and fluffy pulp that melted in my mouth. More creaminess awaited in the Madras curry; get it with chicken.
Finally, if you like tandoori — meats grilled in the eponymous clay oven that reaches almost 500 degrees — sample several items by ordering the special meat appetizer, a really affordable protein jolt for four ($14).
It comes with beef kebabs taken off the skewer, bite-size pieces of chicken tikka, bone-in chicken thighs and shrimp. The presentation is pretty, strewn with sautéed onions and bell peppers, and green apple slices ringing the plate like a starburst. The meats, however, had a thick curry paste on them. Delicious, definitely, but also dominating. I am sure there is great tandoori under there, and I want to taste it.
All in all, however, Bombay Bar & Grill offers a frilly, fancy and fun environment right in the center of town, with food that is absolutely Indo-Lexingtonian. They serve not only beer but wine from India. Order the crisp Sula chenin blanc. It pairs well with just about everything, including ghee and cream sauce.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.