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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 26, 2007

Bombay takes you on a journey to the real deal

Bombay Indian Restaurant photo gallery

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kailuans Kathy Schramm, left, and Danica Thompson sample Bombay's fare.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rating: Three forks out of five (Good)

Discovery Bay Center, 1778 Ala Moana 942-3990

5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sundays

Price: $4.95-$9.95 starters, $10.95-$21.95 main dishes

Details: Validated parking, entrance on Kaio'o Drive, full bar, just started serving Sunday buffet lunch, rice comes with each entree

Recommended: crab masala, chat papri, chicken tikka masala, lamb rogan josh, bhaigan bartha, palak paneer, mango lassi

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The lamb is tender and the sauce creamy in the rogan josh.

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In the open kitchen at Bombay Indian Restaurant, a cook shapes a disc of dough, puts it on what looks like a big towel-covered pincushion, and reaches into the stainless-steel gas tandoor, placing the pale circle against the oven's interior wall with a pat. A minute later he pulls out a blistered, hot naan.

Bombay is Honolulu's first fully conceived Indian restaurant. It's not a steam-table fast-food joint, not a room that had some tables and chairs thrown into it and Indian crafts tacked to the wall.

Owner Ashwani Ahuja moved here with the express plan to open a restaurant. Born and raised in New Delhi, Ahuja was a 28-year resident of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. A hotel and restaurant veteran, he owned three venues one American and two Indian restaurants; he kept one of them, Raga, in Falls Church, Va.

With saffron-colored walls, orange-backed banquettes, subdued track lighting and rhubarb of human chatter, Bombay is a bona fide restaurant. (If you whine about the lively roar at town, you'll whine about Bombay.)

Open just six weeks, it is almost full most weeknights, and many of the diners are subcontinental, or from places where Indian cuisine has a strong presence, such as Malaysia. They come because as with some other cuisines (French and Mexican come to mind), Honolulu is still waiting to be sated. Ahuja doesn't hesitate to say there's a need for two or three more good Indian restaurants.

The menu is largely the usual Punjabi roundup. In the U.S., samosas and chicken tikka masala are to Indian restaurants what chicken satay and pad Thai are to Thai restaurants dishes Americans know, love and order ad nauseum.

Happily, chef Anand Bhandari, whom Ahuja brought with him from Raga, has regional detours that let diners expand their repertoire, or appease wide-ranging palates. (And the chicken tikka masala? Go ahead and order it once again it's creamy and smoky with charbroiled bird.)

Crab masala, a dish from southwestern, coastal Kerala, is reworked as a light appetizer. Normally a curry pot of in-shell crab hunks, chef Bhandari does the work for you, serving a fluff ball of pure crabmeat shreds lightly mixed with garam masala and other spicing.

Curries are sophisticated and multilayered compared to the rough-hewn, home-cook-style varieties found at, say, India Cafe. Goa shrimp swims in a subtly sweet tomato-based sauce with flecks of green chili, while lamb rogan josh is almost buttery like a korma.

Flaps of dried leather are often what one gets when ordering from the tandoori options, but Bombay doesn't incinerate meats. The mixed grill yielded two moist morsels each of chicken, lamb and shrimp.

There is, of course, a good list of vegetarian dishes, with the bhaigan bartha, an eggplant mash, topping the list coriander, caraway, ajwain each flavor seems to tease the tongue in rotation. Bombay makes its own paneer (ricottalike cheese) that goes into the fresh spinach porridge known as palak paneer, and peas, carrots, cauliflower and potatoes mix it up in sookhi sabzi.

Like lassi? Bombay's ultrafruity mango version is the best in town.

Inside tip: The food is prepared mild, unless you ask for spicy. Raita, mango chutney and pickle aren't on the menu, but you'll get them if you ask.

The one dish that got the gong was mulligatawny soup. Anyone anticipating the oral kaleidoscope of spices will be disappointed by the one-note yellow sludge.

Here's a novelty: Bombay has a full bar, and Ahuja is talking with booze distributors about bringing in Indian brews such as Kingfisher and Lion. If that happens, it'll be a first for O'ahu.

The complaint heard most often about Bombay so far is the price. It's true that dishes are a buck or two more than those at its closest competition, Maharani, but you get rice with every entree, while Maharani makes you pay for $5 pilao.

At Bombay, you also pay for high-grade ingredients (no weird gristly parts of lamb or chicken) and affable, customer-oriented service (while rough around the edges, the promising staff has charm and looks).

For people who think of Indian food as grad-student-budget only, the cuisine has always had a parallel universe of high-end dining. Bombay finds its place between the two.

When Ahuja vacationed on O'ahu for the first time two years ago with his wife and children, he "loved it." There was one hitch. "We needed an Indian meal at least once a day," and he just wasn't feeling it from the offerings he spotted. There were no Indian restaurants where "you would like to take your clients or a date." He's changed that.

Bombay isn't a masala miracle there's no food epiphany for anyone who's had a home-cooked meal in Mumbai or eaten at London's Tamarind but the curry crazed will be pleased to find Ho-nolulu's Indian-food experience has been raised a notch or two.

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.