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restaurants

photo:Darrol Hofmeister
photo:Darrol Hofmeister

A Better Bombay

Regina’s newest Indian restaurant is on the right track

by Aidan Morgan

Bombay East Indian Restaurant
2143 Albert Street
205-4940
www.bombayrestaurant.ca

There are two kinds of restaurants in this world.* The first kind starts off with a bang — soft launches to generate buzz, a well-known executive chef to get the kitchen off to the right start, and a round of positive early reviews. Then the executive chef wanders off to focus on other projects, the restaurant starts cutting costs and the quality goes downhill. In the meantime, the public is suckered into spending its money at a mediocre restaurant.

Eventually everyone realizes that they’ve been had, and the restaurant either closes its doors or fades into the general background noise of overpriced burgers and “gourmet comfort food”.

There are always exceptions, but I’ve seen it happen often enough that I’m upgrading the phenomenon from a trend to a rule.

The other kind of restaurant is the one that doesn’t have the benefit of hype, industry contacts or (sometimes) experience. These are the ones that generate angry and almost-but-not-quite literate responses on Urbanspoon.com from people who’ve dropped by during the restaurant’s first week of operation and come away with profound outrage over the lack of truffle shavings on their french fries or whatever. “Server did not respond to my donkey-like brays for ivory chopsticks; will not be going back there again.”

But the truth is that many restaurants have a rough start while they figure out their menu, their kitchen and their clientele. The trick lies in overcoming initial problems and pulling out of the well of potential failure.

Bombay’s location is ridiculously convenient for me, but since the entire city doesn’t live at my condo (But you can drop by! We have cable and usually biscuits!), I can’t really count that as a positive in this review (sorry). The restaurant is a one-room affair, with modest but attractive decor and, for some reason, a sink with hand soap and paper towel located right next to the till.

My first time at Bombay was a mixed experience. Most of the food was good but there were some rough spots, too. We started with a mango lassi ($3.99) and a cup of chai, then ordered a selection of standard dishes to start. Like most Indian restaurants in Regina (or pretty much anywhere I’ve been), Bombay’s menu leans heavily on Punjabi cuisine, with its tandoori and biryani sections, along with a smattering of popular items from other parts of the country. We had the butter chicken ($13.99), lamb vindaloo ($15.99) and vegetable biryani ($12.99), with an order of paneer naan flatbread ($3.99) to accompany.

Dishes like these are a basic litmus test for new Indian restaurants. Butter chicken, vindaloo, biryani and naan are mainstays. If you can’t get these right, then you’re probably in the wrong business. Fortunately, the dishes were largely very good. The only one that gave me any difficulty was the lamb vindaloo, which was advertised on the menu as “boneless”. That may have been the intention, but somebody forgot to tell the lamb, which had plenty of bones. And the meat, while tasty, was tenacious and a bit tough.

It’s hard to impress a date when you’re wrestling with a sauce-covered chunk of lamb (unless your date is into that kind of thing).

The vegetable biryani more than made up for the lacklustre lamb dish. The fried spices in the rice and vegetables were delicious. They gave the dish a deep and layered flavour that I’ve never experienced with a biryani before. Fantastic.

The butter chicken was a gigantic hit with the Knights of Appetite. I’ve never been a huge fan of the stuff, but my tablemates pronounced it some of the best butter chicken they’d ever had. So there you go.

There were a few other things that put a damper on my enthusiasm. Aside from the boney boneless lamb, the restaurant was charging $1.00 for leftovers. Really? And a prominent sign advised people that the lunch buffet was $11.99, plus $5.99 for every additional plate.

I couldn’t help but feel that owner Museb Marnwala was making some poor choices. The concept of the buffet is close to sacred in Saskatchewan: show up, fill your plate and keep filling it until they roll you out the door, amen.

Despite my misgivings, I reconvened the Knights of Appetite a few days later for the lunch buffet. And lo and behold, the bewildering buffet pricing was gone! So we settled in for a multi-plate meal.

The buffet was a mixed bag, to be honest. One particular Knight raved about the channa masala, but, although very tasty, it struck me as too oily. The dal makhani sort of sloshed around the plate and disappeared immediately into the other items. On the plus side, the mixed vegetables and the curry chicken were both enjoyable, with a surprising amount of heat.

The butter chicken was as good as ever. Dessert was a choice between gulab jamun and kheer (rice pudding).

There isn’t much variety with the buffet — Marnwala wants to keep the focus on his menu. Although it’s not fancy, if you’re going out with a few friends or office mates for lunch you could do worse than Bombay.

On our last visit, more changes were evident. I was about to warn the table about the “boneless” lamb when I saw that the word had been carefully crossed out on the menu. We went for the vegetable samosas ($2.99, two per order), which were unbelievably filling; the baigan burtha ($11.99), an eggplant curry, which was more minced up than I’m used to and therefore was mushier — but also more flavourful — than I’ve had at other restaurants; and the lamb biryani ($15.99), which wasn’t quite as good as the vegetable version I’d had the week before.

As we picked out our dishes, the owner told us about upcoming changes to the kitchen. The upshot was that he may be able to cut some costs, experiment with different dishes and reduce a few prices here and there.

It’s strange to watch a restaurant change and improve before your eyes, but it’s incredibly heartening. Bombay is one to keep an eye on.

UPDATE! The meals in this review were consumed in September. As this issue went to press, Bombay was about to launch an updated menu with several interesting-looking Indo-Chinese offerings, including noodle dishes. As well, Marnwala promised that his buffet would soon be open evenings (except for Thursday and Friday). The buffet had changed a bit too, with the addition of pakoras (deep-fried fritters).

The channa masala is still oily but that one Knight of Appetite remains stubbornly devoted.

*I’ve been waiting for ages to write a sweeping, authoritative generalization like that.