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Friday, May 16, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
At last, Indian food for kulcha vultures
It's been a very long time -- thankfully -- since we could count the number of places in Tokyo serving real Indian food on the fingers of one hand. These days we don't have to travel too far to find a reasonably authentic curry. In fact, it's a measure of how fortunate we are that our main complaint now is not of unavailability, but of monotony. Too many of our Indian restaurants look the same and serve up food that tastes the same.
So that is why our ears pricked up with anticipation when we heard of the opening of Bombay Club, the latest branch of the ever-reliable Maharaja group. Instead of yet another clone, this new arrival promises something rather different. Call it, if you will, "gourmet Indian."
The setting, on the second floor of the new, high-rise Shiodome City Center building, is not hugely inspiring. But a quick perusal of the menu was enough to erase all our doubts. Instead of the identikit, tried-and-true format -- you know, a choice of three curries, tandoori chicken, rice or nan -- Bombay Club has an impressively long and tantalizing list of offerings.
For this we can thank Calcutta-born executive chef Walter D'Rozario, whose Manhattan restaurant, Utsav, introduced the idea of sophisticated Indian food to New Yorkers. Not only does Bombay Club feature many of his signature dishes, it has also gone for a similar upmarket approach.
No flickering video screens and blaring Bollywood soundtracks here, nor the gaudy ethnic baubles and heavy rosewood carvings that pass for decor in so many Indian eateries. Instead, it has the smart look of a hotel dining room. A few brass pots glow dimly in alcoves; gauzy curtains are arranged so they break up the dining area for privacy. The chef working at the glass-enclosed tandoor oven wears a bright red baseball cap. The furniture is simple Scandinavian; modern jazz plays (too loudly, it must be said) on the sound system; and the drinks list is long on Californian wine.
But it is the food that distinguishes Bombay Club. At lunchtime, there are good-value set meals -- the Executive Set mixed tandoor plate (1,400 yen) includes substantial portions of chicken, lamb kebab and cubes of grilled paneer curd cheese -- but in the evening you order a la carte. As you would expect in an Indian restaurant (but don't find often enough elsewhere in Tokyo), there is a great selection for vegetarians.
As a starter with our Kingfisher beer, we ordered sonali palak, described in the menu as "Indian tempura." Individual spinach leaves were dipped in a batter of chickpea flour and deep-fried as crisp, golden fritters. What made this outstanding was the delectable savory-sweet chutney sauce served with it, which is prepared from tamarind, dates and jagari palm sugar, plus a few spices, of course.
We followed this with a platter of tandoor subz bahar -- half a small head of cauliflower cooked perfectly in the tandoor oven, with a few chunks of onion and potato, and basted with a wonderful mixture of sour cream, yogurt and freshly ground spices.
More surprising, perhaps, than how good it all tasted was the way it was presented. In the normal run of affairs, we don't expect to find a lightly dressed side salad of mixed baby greens at an Indian restaurant. There were small touches like this throughout the meal at Bombay Club.
There were three of us, so the same number of curries seemed about right. The shaan savare consists of small patties of mashed paneer stuffed with a creamy, coconut-based paste, then deep-fried and served in a smooth, mild curry. This was a highlight of our dinner and, to make sure not a drop of that creamy brown liquid went to waste, we ordered plenty of nan and other breads (paratha, poori and kulcha).
The kadai bhindi was also excellent. This is a masala (as "dry curries" are known in India) made from sliced okra, cooked with a thick paste of freshly ground spices. Simple in execution but with a complex chorus of flavors, it was well complemented by an order of warm, wholewheat chapati.
By contrast, the Konkan fish curry was prepared in the South Indian style, with a thick coconut base, an attractive red color and plenty of fiery chili to offset the light flavor of the white-meat fish. With an order of white rice (not aromatic basmati, unfortunately, but a tasty long-grain variety), we were well satisfied.
This is probably the best Indian food in Tokyo. So it's a pity that the setting doesn't really do it justice. We would prefer more atmosphere (and quieter music) in the dining room. And menu explanations in English about each dish would make ordering easier. But the bottom line is simple: at Bombay Club you will eat very well.