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An L.A. original that has only gotten better

Bombay Cafe is still going strong. And with its distinctive blend of soulful cooking and modern sensibility, it's easy to see why.

August 27, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

It doesn't seem to matter what day of the week it is or whether it's early or late: Every table at Bombay Cafe is taken. It's not so easy to walk right in and find a seat. When you drive around to the back alley to find the valet, you can see why: Cars are packed into the small lot like sardines.

The entrance, a nondescript door in the wall, doesn't promise much. But follow the narrow hallway to the end, where a delicious drift of spicy aromas wafts in from the kitchen. You can eat only so much Italian or French or California eclectic before longing for something more exotic. And with its soulful Indian cooking and California sensibility, Bombay Cafe is the perfect compromise. In the kitchen, an emphatic, dark-haired woman in a petal pink sari peers into pots, tasting and discussing dishes with the immaculately dressed chef. She's Bombay Cafe's owner Neela Paniz; he's sous-chef Keshew Chawal.

I'm a longtime fan of the restaurant, and while the cooking has always been good, somehow, while I wasn't looking, it's gotten better. The same dishes seem more focused now; the flavors more tightly woven on my last three visits.

As I pass the kitchen, I always check out the dishes the chef has set out on the counter for the waiters to pick up. Mmm, there's the scent of freshly ground cardamom and ginger, and the almost metallic pungency of turmeric. Meats from the tandoor with the bright stain of their marinade, curries laced with spices and coriander leaves, vegetables studded with snowy cubes of paneer cheese. Before ever picking up the menu, I already know what I want to order.

Indian restaurants do not generally have open kitchens, but this one does, and it's one of the most interesting things about Bombay Cafe. It also says a lot about the food here. It's Indian, but adapted to California tastes. Indian restaurants in this country generally alternate between the gilt and pomp of the high-end eating palace and the fluorescent buzz of bare-bones sweet and snack shops. With Bombay Cafe, Paniz and her partner, David Chaparro, have created something very different, a Cal-Indian cafe in a category all its own.

The walls, painted a soft yellow, are hung with whimsical Indian drawings. There's a bar where you can wait for a table or have a drink and a couple of appetizers or snacks. The wicker bistro chairs are comfortable, not cramped. The wait staff is incredibly friendly. And the clientele is about as diverse as it gets on the Westside. It's about the same crowd you'd expect to find in a terrific Italian trattoria or California cafe. Since there's nothing like it, I know people who will drive in from Pasadena or the Palisades to eat at Bombay Cafe.

It's impossible to dine here without getting an order of Paniz's Gujarati-style samosas. Shaped like elongated triangles, they are more refined than most, with a thinner crust and a subtly spiced filling of potatoes and peas. Dip them in a little of the sour tamarind sauce. Fish pakoras are bite-sized pieces of fish deftly fried in a light batter -- better than fish and chips because they're never greasy.

Many of her best dishes are based on street food that Paniz fell in love with as a student of economics in Bombay. Bhel puri is a wonderful mix of puffed rice, potatoes, the crispy chickpea flour noodles called sev, and crushed puri, a kind of cracker, with cilantro leaves and three different chutneys. Uttapam looks something like an individual pizza. Actually, it's a semolina griddle cake (read pancake) garnished with sliced tomato, green chile and cilantro leaves. The fresh coconut chutney that comes with it works magic with the flavors of tomato and chile. My favorite is dahi papdi chat, a plate of crisp little puris that look something like sea urchin shells, tender lentil dumplings and chickpeas scribbled over with yogurt and tamarind chutney. The effect is soothingly tart and sweet at the same time, with a touch of heat that comes trailing after.

It's fun to order the chutney sampler too. Paniz has a thing about chutneys and collects recipes every time she goes back to India. In fact, her first restaurant was called Chutneys, and she sells some of her variations online. Sometimes, the server forgets to tell you all the choices and just brings out sweet tomato chutney, along with that snowy coconut chutney freckled with black mustard seeds, and a rich walnut version from Kashmir. They're served, quite unconventionally, with deep-fried samosa wrappers for dipping.

Another dish that's incredibly popular is frankies. Paniz will tell you it's a re-creation of a beloved snack she used to eat at Breach Candy Beach in Bombay. The choice is savvy because it resembles the familiar burrito. I love the one filled with fragrant lamb masala, but the chicken one is a close second. Vegetarians can also order a cauliflower-filled version.

Subtle heat

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