Many of my acquaintances seem to categorize Indian food as something never to be tried again. With most of these diners, it's not lack of exposure or lack of education that leads them to make this determination. It's that first bad experience. The memory of poorly cooked Indian fare, it appears, is a lasting one.
Why this reaction occurs more often with Indian cuisine than any other is simple: Indian dishes are both sophisticated and complicated. The spicing is often so complex that the balance of a dish can be easily upset by amateurish preparation. Only those of us who were lucky enough to have had superb Indian cooking as an initiation -- I first tried it in London, and had a phenomenal meal -- can overcome the miseries inflicted on our palates (not to mention our digestive systems) by bad Indian restaurants.
That said, I would not take a novice to Taste of Bombay. The Indian restaurant, which changed its name from House of India to Punjab to Taste of Bombay recently, is a pleasant, if rather nondescript, formal dining room with a leaf-print carpet, white linens, and some sparse examples of Indian artwork on the walls. But while some of the dishes are reasonably good, plenty of others could scar a budding gastronome for life.
For example the tandoori chicken, simultaneously one of the most representative and most innocuous of Indian dishes -- and by that I mean the most neophyte-friendly -- was hardly edible. Food cooked in a tandoor, or clay oven, is first marinated in yogurt, vinegar, ginger, and a host of other spices. Then it's roasted to a supposed succulence in the oven, which features a live wood or coal fire. Greenhorns can usually cozy up to such a meal because the meats used, though colored bright red, are familiar in texture and not too exotic in flavor, since they aren't doused in a curried sauce. But at Taste of Bombay, the chicken, lamb, and shrimp had been overspiced and then overcooked. It was a tossup whether we were more put off by the desiccated chicken and stringy lamb or by the palate-stinging properties of their coating. As for the jumbo shrimp, they had been roasted so long that they were mushy.
Those shrimp, I should note, were mild and sweet, showing to much better advantage in a main course of shrimp vindaloo. The shrimp were tightly curled jumbos, topped with spoonfuls of a zesty curry sauce. Unfortunately, as with the bhindi, or okra sautéed with tomatoes, onions, and ginger, they were practically floating in ghee, a buttery substance that in small doses is delicious, and in large doses is just grease.
The shrimp the restaurant uses are good enough that we should have substituted them for the halibut in the fish moli, as our waiter suggested. However, I wish he'd been a little more forthcoming after his initial remark that the moli would be better with shrimp. "Why?" we asked. "Isn't the fish fresh?"
"No, it's fresh," he reassured us. But actually, it was so close to spoiled that, regardless of etiquette, I had to spit out the piece I had put in my mouth. This was too bad, because of all the sauces, the moli -- a coconut milkbased brew sharpened with vinegar, sweetened with tomatoes, and garnished with sautéed onions and peppers -- was one of the best.
Equally accomplished and very tasty was a vegetarian entrée, eggplant bhartha. The eggplants had been roasted whole, then mashed and seasoned. A chunky purée, the bhartha was delicious over the yellow rice that accompanied all main courses. Indian-food veterans would also undoubtedly appreciate the chicken do-piaja, a combination of boneless chicken pieces cooked with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes. We requested this as spicy as possible, and while it was indeed piquant enough to singe our nose hairs, the waiter thoughtfully brought a side of chile sauce just in case we wanted to burn off our taste buds as well.
Though the menu states that "all seafood specialties [are] served with soup, rice, and onion chutney," we never saw any soup. The zingy onion chutney, served at the beginning of the meal and replenished throughout, came with pappadam (thin lentil wafers) that suffered from a combination of too much oil and too much humidity. We had to order (and pay for) a dish of raita, or cucumber-yogurt sauce, as a side dish, though it was billed on the menu as an accompaniment for a platter of mediocre "Bombay special biryani" -- rice mixed with lamb, beef, chicken, shrimp, cashews, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and cream. The rice itself was finely cooked, but the meats were tough and the nuts unforgivably soggy. Fortunately the raita was a winner, neither too thin nor too thick, with plenty of sprightly cucumber flavor. We scooped it up with a variety of naan -- plain, garlic, and onion-stuffed bread -- that had been cooked in the tandoor. (The dough is flattened against the oven walls.)
Like the main courses, appetizers were a mixed bag -- truly, since we'd ordered a sampler platter. Despite the server's insistence that it was enough to feed my party of five, it really wasn't. We ended up by splicing and dicing the single representatives of onion bhaji (fritter), vegetable samosa (dumpling), beef samosa, cheese pakora (homemade cheese deep-fried in chickpea flour), and seekh kebab (minced lamb formed and grilled on a skewer). Not one appetizer stood out as exceptional, though the samosas were passable. Rather, the onion bhaji was oily, the cheese pakora was dense and flavorless, and the seekh kebab was far too zealously spiced.
More interesting, and certainly better prepared, the bhel puri was a pleasure to share as a starter. Rarely seen in this corner of the U.S., though common in India, the crepe was stuffed with potatoes and partnered by savory dal, or stewed lentils, that the diner can use as a garnish. A spicy but otherwise flavorless coriander chutney also accompanied the bhel puri.
Despite the limited success of some of the dishes, general dissatisfaction prevented us from ordering kulfi (ice cream flavored with almonds, pistachios, and rose water) or gulab jamun (small fried donuts soaked in honey syrup and rose water). And the fact that the serviceable dishes are sprinkled in among some truly bad ones will probably prevent us from returning, too, especially since we have the option of dining at more accomplished Indian restaurants around Broward and Palm Beach counties, such as Mehfil and Delhi Darbar. Taste of Bombay should take care lest old fish and overspicing leave a bad taste in the mouths of local diners.