Floyd Cardoz is very much back on his bullshit. Two decades after New Yorkers first embraced him as a pioneer of modern Indian-American cooking at Danny Meyer’s Tabla, the 57-year-old Mumbai-born chef seems to have hit another stride, converting his sleepy one-and-a-half-year-old Soho restaurant Paowalla into the boisterous and flamboyant Bombay Bread Bar this past February.
That this vibrant new venture looks straight out of a Wes Anderson flick is no accident. Film production designer Kris Moran, whose body of work includes 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, headed up renovations, which remarkably took just ten days. Instead of the demure ecru facade Paowalla debuted with in 2016, the Bombay Bread Bar announces itself to passersby with an intense, eye-catching cerulean that’s impossible to ignore from the street. Inside, Moran’s breathed new life into the formerly staid beige and gilded space. Multicolored oilcloths cover the tables; the centerpiece wood-fired oven Cardoz inherited from the previous tenant, an Italian restaurant, has been painted so that the opening of the hearth looks like a gaping tiger’s maw; and framed against an expanse of green-and-white floral wallpaper are portraits of dapper besuited anthropomorphic animals recalling Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. At the back of the room, a massive pop-art wall mural from Pakistani Canadian artist Maria Qamar depicts a wistful couple who look like they’ve been waiting a bit too long for their cocktails to arrive, something that can occasionally happen here when it gets crowded.
Long before opening the Bombay Canteen in his birthplace three years ago, or his brief interlude with broader New American cuisine at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill and Tribeca’s felled White Street prior to that, Cardoz’s twelve-year tenure working for Meyer at Tabla cemented his status as one of the country’s top kitchen talents. His cooking remains as finely tuned and approachably creative as ever, but unlike Paowalla’s sedate formality, the cordial atmosphere here is far better suited to the updated, more casual menu, which still mostly focuses on shared plates and the breads and breathtaking chutneys (Lemon! Mango! Mint-cilantro!) that have long been highlights of Cardoz-run kitchens. While a recent building snafu has rendered the tandoor ovens momentarily inoperable (leaving the doughy offerings abbreviated), Cardoz and his crew have taken to baking their naans, parathas, and papadums in pans, “like most Indians do at home,” the chef says. In the meantime, I hope he’ll consider bringing back Paowalla’s tingmo, the steamed Tibetan bread he used to brush liberally with bracing chile paste.
What’s available is fantastic, though, especially the wheels of bacon-and-cheddar-filled kulcha ($14) cut into quesadilla-like triangles, which have a smoky richness best complemented by the jammy tomato chutney spiked with earthy nigella seeds. Sourdough naan anchors two of the best dishes — a mutter paneer pizza ($17) of garlic bread baked with spring peas and melty cheese, and Tabla’s pulled lamb “naanini” ($26), a hefty dream of a sandwich layering shreds of yogurt-doused, black pepper–braised meat between turmeric-mustard mashed potatoes. Thinner, flakier parathas ($5) make prime vehicles for walnut-beet raita ($5), the sweet and tart yogurt sauce shaded an intensely hot pink, and “Goan guacamole” ($9), a holdover from Tabla that finds the mashed avocados shot through with cumin and cayenne. The chewy flatbreads are also perfect for scooping up lamb Haleem curry ($14), a dish of falling-apart soft neck meat stewed with lentils, cracked wheat, and mint that comes adorned with a welcome scattering of crunchy puffed grains.
You can cobble a meal together from any of the breads plus a few appetizers, or opt for one of only a few entrées, like stone bass caldin ($24) mingling tender Atlantic wreckfish in a Goan coconut-turmeric curry studded with cauliflower. Among the small plates, Paowalla fans might recognize the creamy lake of semolina upma polenta ($13), sweetened with coconut milk and ginger, that, per the season, now incorporates fresh peas and asparagus for a grassy kick; or else the salad of baby fenugreek and spindly pea tendrils ($12) laced with honey and a toss of peanuts and sesame seeds. And those with even longer memories should celebrate the return of Tabla’s asparagus foogath ($14), a seasonal sauté that pairs the verdant spears with ginger, mustard seeds, fresh coconut, and sour kokum fruit. It’s to Cardoz’s credit that years later, dishes like these still feel fresh and exciting.
Like so many restaurants these days, the Bombay Bread Bar keeps things relatively simple with desserts, to reliably satisfying outcomes. Denser than Milwaukee’s sturdiest frozen custard, inverted cones of kulfi ($16) ice cream — in flavors like mango, strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate — arrive surrounded by fruit or crushed nuts. Then there’s Cardoz’s gulab nut ($12), a doughnut made of dehydrated milk solids that gets deep-fried, soaked in rum syrup, and piped with silky pistachio cream. I’d encourage him to trademark it before Dominique Ansel, the cronut king whose popular patisserie sits a few storefronts down Spring Street, gets anxious for his next breakout baked good.
Bombay Bread Bar
195 Spring Street