By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Few buffets provide the culinary pleasures of a sit-down meal ordered from an actual menu. Aside from the collapse of common civility that occurs in their slow-moving lines, a good deal of the sustenance we jostle over isn’t meant to sit in heated, metal trays beyond 20 minutes, after which flavors and textures become compromised.
In a rare exception, Bombay brings as much elegance to the buffet experience as realistically possible with its daily lunch displays of multi-regional Indian cuisine. The dinner buffet, available on Mondays, features more meat dishes such as an extra preparation or two of chicken and sometimes lamb.
Bombay operates otherwise as a full-service restaurant specializing in a wide range of safely spiced curries. It is perhaps the oldest Indian kitchen in Hillcrest, having opened in 1988 before moving across the street into its current, larger digs.
Visitors are greeted by an illuminated floor-to-ceiling waterfall, posh chandeliers and other palace-like décor that will effectively soothe your senses, if not sedate the life out of you if arriving a little sleepy.
The raised, front dining room leads to a glitzier, rear seating area used for spillovers and private parties. Festooned in wispy fabrics and colored spotlights, it’s easy to imagine the space doubling as a sound stage for the mesmerizing Bollywood movies shown on flat screens throughout the restaurant. The elaborate settings, wardrobes and dance performances they capture are beautiful.
Dropping in solo for the Monday-night buffet, the food showed no signs of dehydration. Nor did anyone’s arm ever cross over mine as I loaded my plate. The restaurant’s elegant environment seemingly dictates good manners.
Two different salads started the lineup: mixed greens and fresh cucumbers tossed with sumac-dusted onions and copious cilantro. They struck stimulating matches to all four dressings, especially the lemony puree of oil and mint, and the gelatinous vinaigrette that resembled zesty Italian.
Dahl soup fortified with yellow lentils sat alongside sambar soup using black lentils. Both were divine. The latter, however, tasted more exotic, offering hints of tamarind, fenugreek and chili peppers.
They progressed to about eight hot items identified only by name in decorative picture frames. If you’re seen standing dumbfounded over the actual ingredients in certain dishes, a well-dressed wait staffer usually comes to the rescue with an explanation.
The vegetable pakoras — mostly green beans entombed in fried batter — were average and somewhat greasy. But the nearby samosas were super-flakey on the outside, like buttery, homemade pie crust encasing saffron-kissed potatoes and peas.
Bombay’s chicken tikka masala hits the gold standard in terms of tenderness and creaminess. The tomato-yogurt sauce is flavored robustly with cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger and other ingredients that permeate the cubed breast pieces beneath their surfaces. Traditional Indian recipes call for thigh meat, but when the sauce is this sinfully rich, the leaner flesh strikes a better balance.
Banana curry isn’t something you find often on Indian buffets. On this particularly evening, it contained assorted vegetables taking on a saucy dessert-like essence supported possibly by coconut milk. Good stuff, but something I can eat only in limited doses because of its sweetness.
Okra-rich bhindi masala was another meatless entrée in the offing, and the one that paired best to a basket of garlic naan brought to my table by a waiter. Bread is imperative with the dish because of its loose consistency. Unlike other bhindi recipes I’ve tried, this was less oily and packed with peppery flavor.
I usually skip over tandoori chicken on buffets because it’s invariably dry until drowning it in raita (cucumber-yogurt-mint sauce). But the bone-in pieces were kept reasonably moist on a bedding of roasted red bell peppers and fried onions. The sweaty veggies also added a tasty twist to the smoky, clay-pot oven flavor of the chicken that I haven’t encountered elsewhere.
Maybe it was the intoxicating visuals and music from the non-stop Bollywood movies that left me particularly fond of this buffet, which was clean, orderly and softly lit. The kitchen staff frequently refreshed many of the dishes. And the waiters were fast to remove spent plates from my table every time I stepped away to fill new ones.
In other words, I made a shameful number of visits to the composed food line, ending with restrained servings of lychee mousse and memorably refreshing carrot halwa that left me licking butter and cardamom off my lips for the entire drive home.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.