When meeting friends for food and a glass of wine after work, an Indian restaurant doesn’t often come to mind. But given its location in Uptown Oakland, the proprietors of Bombay B’s Indian Bistro and Wine Bar hope to change that idea — or at least one would surmise this goal from a recent visit. Bombay B’s invited Nosh for a complementary meal to see what it had to offer.
The space, between Ike’s Place and Plum Bar on Broadway, is very much of its location. With dark walls, high wooden tables and an Indian movie playing on a large screen, Bombay B’s decor is much different than what we usually expect of Indian restaurants.
There’s also a bar, rare in Indian restaurants except for the more upscale ones – which this isn’t. The restaurant doesn’t have a full liquor license, so instead of the usual bottles of spirits, it’s filled with multiple wine and beer bottles and decorative vases.
The restaurant’s original concept promised Indian street food such as naan pizzas and Indian tacos, but neither of these two dishes are easy to make in the small kitchen. The naan didn’t work as a pizza crust and the tacos, which offered various curries served atop a fried puri shell (an Indian tostada would be more of an accurate description), may be next to go. While we were able to try the tacos the other night, head chef Bhupendra Singh is finding it difficult to make each puri fresh to order. The owners hope to make modifications in the kitchen in the future, but that will require a building permit. For the time being, the tacos and pizzas will be taken off the menu.
So what is on the menu? Chef Singh, who grew up in Delhi and has been cooking at several Indian restaurants on California’s central coast for 15 years, says that he began cooking with his mother and grandmother. He believes that by sharing the flavors of home, he is introducing people not only to Indian food, but to a vital part of Indian culture. He added that to him, “cooking comes from my heart.”
He pointed out that too many Westerners associate Indian food with spice, or the word “curry,” which actually comes from England. And while he does calls the recognizable dishes “curries” on the menu, he says many spice blends he uses come directly from his grandmother, and cannot be divulged.
Admittedly, “cooking from his heart” using his grandmother’s secret recipes sounds a bit clichéd — until you taste the food. Our only hang-up was in inconsistent spicing, which we attributed the brand-new restaurant getting its bearings. When the dishes were spiced correctly, and most of them were, they were some of the best renditions of these dishes we’ve ever had.
An order of Masala Fries was pleasantly surprising. Rather being tossed with a spice mixture, the fries came to the table slicked in a red sauce; they looked as if they had been “pre-ketchup-ed.” But this was no ketchup. Both sweet and spicy at the same time, these saucy fries could become downright addictive. We even had to move them to the side to leave room for the other dishes.
Kale pakoras seemed like a nod to Oakland, and we were fine with that. Besides the fries, they were the best appetizer we tried. The perfectly spiced dark green fritters served with mint and tamarind chutneys even gave us the illusion of being healthy, sort of.
The veggie samosas were less successful. The potato and pea filling was overcooked, and the spices barely discernible. On the other hand, we appreciated the unique shape and spice level of the parcel-like beef samosas.
We tried a few of the Indian tacos, and found some curries better than others. The mushroom was curry a bit sweet, but delicious, while the yellow split pea dal was too watery and mild to be interesting.
There are a few more appetizers that we didn’t try, like their Indian veggie burgers. One could easily make a meal of these small bites with a few drinks and call it a night. But we needed to do our due diligence and try the entrées as well. Each comes with rice, a la carte, or in veggie and meat combos.
Among our party of four, we had a disagreement over what canonical dish we use to measure an Indian restaurant; for one couple it’s saag or palak paneer, and for the other it’s chicken tikka masala. We ordered both, and while both were on the spicy side, we found them to be seasoned perfectly. Both were splendid renditions on the dish, up there with the best we’ve tried.
The wine and beer list is small but extremely reasonable price-wise; in addition to the usual Indian beers offered, there are a number of Rieslings – both German and Californian – whose sweetness compliments the spiciness of the food.
While the concept still needs to be hammered out, and the seasonings need to be more consistent, when Bombay B’s is good, it’s really excellent. Judging by the lunchtime rush, it seems the local lunch crowd has figured that out already. Chef Singh clearly knows what he’s doing in the spice department, and when he gets it right, his flavors really “singh.”