It sounds like an amusement park in India, kind of like EuroDisney, but Indian, and with real elephants instead of floppy-eared ones made of steel and plastic that fly through the air. Or maybe more like Dollywood, where you ride on locomotives through the backwoods of Tennessee and large-breasted, platinum blonde women pop out from behind the trees singing “Islands in the Stream.”
Bollywood is not an amusement park, but hey, you already knew that. But since the only thing I know about India’s entertainment industry is garnered from glimpses of of scantily-sari’d Indian women and a throng of men behind them executing highly complex choreography that is a hybrid of Backstreet Boys and Westside Story, I will stick to writing about Indian food.
Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Indian food either, even though I eat Indian food every Sunday night and sometimes even during the week if I’m feeling especially brown. However, it’s always some variation on the standard, somewhat boring formula of 1 vegetable samosa + 1 garlic naan + 1 chicken (choice of: tikka masala/vindaloo/korma) + 1 aloo gobi +/- extravegicular (saag paneer or bengan bharta). You’d think that my huge high school crush on Suresh, which has matured into quite the adulthood crush on Dr. Sanjay Gupta, would have gotten me into growing bindhi and grinding my own garam masala by now.
No, I don’t do that. Now give me my chicken tikka masala!
Yes, of course I realize that chicken tikka masala isn’t real Indian food, but is a burrito named Frankie real Indian food?!?! That, I am not sure, but I do know that a frankie is something new to me.
In fact, everything I ate at Bombay Cafe in West LA, except for the glass of Viognier, was new to me. Technically, I had never had that particular Viognier, so I can, indeed, say that everything I had at Bombay Cafe was new to me, even the glass of wine I drank during lunch because I can because I don’t have a real job. *oops* Did I blog that out loud? Sorry, I think I’m still getting over the bitterness.
I had been to Bombay Cafe before, but it was a very long time ago, and since the occasion happened to be that horrible thing that is a homonym for a supremely sweet, dark brown, wrinkled ovalescent Mediterrenean fruit, I chose not to remember it. It was like I was walking into the restaurant for the first time.
Bombay Cafe’s decor is a bit of a departure from that of other Indian restaurants to which I have been, though you would never be able to tell that from the rather non-descript muted yellow exterior and simple neon sign above the door. Rather than a sterile, cheap Ikea-furnished interior (non)decor that only screams "Indian!" with randomly placed artwork on the walls and scattered Indian garage sale accessories because it was a hasty takeover of some generic joint in a stripmall, Bombay Cafe has a warm, comfortable bistro feel that whispers ethnicity with the integrated use of warm and dark colors on the walls, lighting, and furniture that could have come entirely from Pier 1. Or Cost Plus. Or India, for that matter. Not Ikea.
Every table that runs along the the row of windows that face Pico Boulevard was taken by a casual clientele. No power lunchers here, unless they're in disguise, or every day is casual Friday in West LA. I wouldn't know. I don't work, West LA or otherwise. Dammit. It slipped out again. We took one of the open tables by the window.
The menu is slightly different from the standard Indian restaurant menu format. The "standard" format categorizes food into appetizers, breads, rice, vegetable dishes, curries, and foods grilled in the tandoori oven. Bombay Cafe has some of the usual dishes, but categorizes them slightly differently, and admittedly, it was a little bit intimidating for me at first. There are no official appetizers, but categories that looked like they could be ordered as appetizers. They were called chat, Indian street snacks, and "savouries," which are familiar things like pakora, samosa, naan filled with lamb or chicken, and uttapam. Vegetable dishes are separated from paneer (homemade cheese) dishes, there are soups and salads that very clearly have a western influence, and of course, frankies.
We were there for lunch, so we were also given the lunch menu, which lists thali. A thali is an Indian dinner plate, and basically refers to the silver plate that holds a combination of foods that are an entire meal. A thali was a good way for me to sample a variety of things I had never tried before. We ordered the Frankie Thali, and though I rarely eat lamb when given a choice, the menu said that the lamb frankie is Bombay Cafe's "spiciest dish." Oh. Oh no. Oh no they di'int. It was like Bombay Cafe double-dog dared me with "We doubt you can handle the fire, Pansy Palate" a
nd I had retorted, "Oh yeah? Prove it!" We ordered the lamb frankie. Bring it on, baby.
We also ordered aloo-ki-tikki because suddenly, I was feeling like a fire-breathing Indian food big shot. Yeah. Unh. Bring on the aloo-ki-tikki while you're at it, suckaz!
Of course, the aloo-ki-tikki were nowhere near hot. Mildly spiced mashed potatoes were shaped into three perfect pucks, then fried to a crisp, deep golden brown on the outside, leaving the inside a soft, creamy ivory. Each potato pancake had been carefully topped with a thin layer of rich, smooth tamarind chutney that was sweet and just tart enough to notice that it was. They were delicious, though my preference is always for something slightly more textural, and of course, hot.
Apart from my personal non-preference for adorable, cute, cuddly baby sheep, I was excited about the lamb frankie. You see, though many say that Indian food could quite possibly be the hottest, spiciest food on the planet, I have never broken a sweat while eating Indian food. Never. Sure, I've had to reach for a glass of water (yes, I know, bad idea), but I have never had to lean back in my chair with my head tilted back because tears of fire are steaming down my face and my eyes are rolling back in my head as if possessed by some chili demon. I was hoping Frankie would make me sweat. Or at least, glisten a little.
The thali was a lovely presentation. The frankie looked exactly like what I had imagined - a slightly narrower "burrito" that had been washed with egg and fried. There were a few extras on the thali, but they didn't receive too much attention from me. I tried one of the sev puri, a small, thin upward-curved cracker filled with fried, puffed rice. I didn't love it. It tasted like puffed rice cereal on a Wheat Thin.
We cut the frankie latitudinally through the thin wrapper so I could see whatever was inside that made the lamb frankie Bombay Cafe's "spiciest dish." It was a non-beef carnivore's dream - nothing but dark mahogany meat, cut into enormous chunks that each held their shape individually, but looked like they would fall apart into long-cooked shreds at the slightest touch. Nothing oozed out upon cutting, but wrapped up in there bathing all that lamb, there was a sauce. It just didn't ooze out because it was so velvety thick, clinging to every thread.
I took a piece of the lamb on my fork.
Immediately, it had a deeply complex, spiced (not spicy hot, but spicy herb/spice) flavor, though there is no way that my non-Indian sense could describe it. As I chewed, a slow wave of disappointed victory started to take over. Bombay Cafe had dared me with their "spiciest dish," but it wasn't hot. *shrugs* Maybe a tickle, maybe a tease from the herbs and spices that trick the senses. But it wasn't spicy hot.
I took another bite.
And another bite.
And then the little lamb Frankie that was spicy-but-not-spicy must have hit some sort of switch on its way down, because it started to glow. The heat of Bombay Cafe's "spiciest dish" had skipped my tongue, but erupted into a strange warmth that was *whoa* pretty warm. As I continued my way through the rest of the lamb meat in the frankie, I noticed it. I had started to glisten. The lamb frankie didn't make me sweat, but it sure got me hot.
In fact, I was so warm I suddenly had this urge to wrap myself in a mini-sari, jump up on the table, and do an Indian song and dance.
12021 West Pico Boulevard
West Los Angeles, CA
** a year ago today, shane in santa monica. what a shame **