Indian fusion has gone so far I’m expecting to encounter curried foie gras any day— so far it made me long to revisit traditional dishes. So I headed for the renowned Salaam Bombay, which celebrates Indian cooking from the tandoori grills of Rajasthan to the prawn curries of the south. Although I can order butter chicken with the best of them, I prefer to have a “native” guide, like my old friend Vasu, whose take-no-prisoners attitude has made her notorious in certain Indian circles. She was greeted at the door like visiting royalty.
Unbidden, she organized a meal of classics. First, steaming, spicy bowls of mulligatawny ($3.25), the Anglo-Indian soup that, for once, lived up to its name: pepper water. Lamb vindaloo ($14.95) was cooked Goan-style in a mustard-hued sauce where the subtly blended spices were accentuated by a hit of vinegar. The standby murg tikka masala ($12.95) was perfectly executed— succulent chunks of slightly charred tandoori-cooked chicken in the mild, creamy sauce. Bhindhi do piaza ($9.95) sautéed okra with tomatoes and onions. Accompaniments that are complimentary in some places ratcheted up the bill: matar pullau, basmati rice topped with peas ($3.95), an onion relish Vasu sent back for more heat ($1.50), cooling raita ($2.50), and sweet mango chutney ($1.50). When my poori ($3.95) remained miraculously inflated despite pricking, we ended the evening in companionable Viagra jokes and other ribaldry.
On a second visit, the bustling place was a Wall Street cafeteria where my non-Indian friend and I stood out as elder stateswomen. Undaunted, we explored beyond butter chicken, indulging in appetizers like khaman dhokla ($4.95), steamed, coconut-topped lentil cake lozenges that were slightly chewy, almost bland, and looked a bit like Rice Crispy treats. The North weighed in with tandoori-cooked adrak ke panje ($19.95), three sizzling loin lamb chops covered with a yummy ginger-and-lemon cream sauce. The South’s siren song was koliwada chi kolmi ($15.95), Maharashtrian shrimp in a light tomato-based sauce chunky with garlic and onion and scented with ginger. Intrigued, I nevertheless suspected that the same sauce could have been doctored differently for an order of butter chicken. So I broke down and asked Julie the Spice Queen to come along on a third visit.
Julie had recommended Salaam Bombay, and raved about the jingha bagharela ($6.95), shrimp sautéed in a garlic and mustered (sic) sauce. But the shrimp were overcooked and the sauce was too generic, and we sent the dish back. A linguistic debate established that the dahi batata puri ($4.25) was indeed the dish that she wanted me to sample. After it too was returned, for the prescribed topping of fragrant cilantro sauce, she instructed me to add a few drops of water to each minipuri, then pop it whole into my mouth, where it exploded with cilantro and tamarind, chile and potato, and convinced me I’d been right to return with someone who knew how things should taste. Opining that the chef was a Gujarati vegetarian, she selected ringna bataka nu shaak ($9.95), small Asian eggplants cooked to tender unctuousness and served with cubes of potato in a slightly sweet sauce with a hint of tamarind. They accompanied murg xaccuti, ($13.95), a Goan specialty billed as chicken cooked with roasted coconuts and aromatic spices. Good though it was, it tasted like butter chicken with threads of coconut and ginger to me. One forkful and Julie agreed. Sated if not satisfied, we headed off concluding it’s not always easy to get away from clichés.