Many years ago, I got my first exposure to Indian cuisine when two co-workers and I started what became our bi-weekly Mod Squad dinners. One of the Mod Squad members — affectionally called Julie — was vegetarian, so she offered up a certain Indian restaurant that was central to the other member, Pete, and me, who was dubbed Linc with dreadlocks. Samosas. Papadam wafers. Tamarind chutney. Pickled peppers. Cilantro chutney. Paneer makhani. Saag paneer. Aloo. Chana masala. Bhatura. Sambar. Idli. The spices and flavours were so full that I had not noticed the absence of meat. From that evening, Indian food became my favourite ethnic cuisine. And having travelled to India for two weddings, having Indian food prepared truly authentically made it a definite staple in my diet. Per my high school sweetheart, who said that I smell of curry, it is quite evident that, yes, I am in love with Indian dining.
While in downtown Chicago and reminiscing about my past Mod Squad dinners, I passed by Bombay Spice Grill & Wine at 450 N. Clark Street. Not quite in the tourist trap section of Near North Side, as that would require going over to N. LaSalle Street, Bombay Spice sits not far from several other swanky boutique restaurants. Lucky for me, I wandered by the restaurant a few minutes past it opening its doors for the lunch crowd. I was able to get a seat near the window, not so pedestrians could see my happiness as I ate, but so that I had natural light for my photos. With full bar immediately to the left when you enter, an open grill towards the back, and plenty of seats for the Hungry Jack and Starving Jill, Bombay Spice looks like a hot spot for the Friday evening after-work crowd. After a quick scan of the menu, it became apparent that there was a bit of fusion that gets introduced into the recipes. Bombay Spice is not India House, Udupi Palace, Mysoor, Usmania, or Taj Mahal. And I should have known that from the location, there would be some American aspect introduced so as not to offend a common palate. But that was okay. I can adjust when it comes to food. I decided that I would have my version of a degustation instead of ordering the formulaic appetizer, entrée, and dessert with something to drink. It was a lovely day, I had plenty of time, and I had an appetite, the former not being a surprise.
To start, I had a bowl of lentil soup. After the first slurp, I thought of my favourite Brazilian restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, and the lentil soup that they serve. That Brazilian restaurant prepares the best lentil soup that you will probably find between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The soup that I had a Bombay Spice comes in a close second. The caveat was that the salt seemed to have been mildly heavy-handed — as if something can be mild and heavy at the same time. As I may have mentioned in some past posts, my diet entertains low or no salt, so it becomes rather noticeable in a dish as soon as it touches the tongue. I had orange juice along with the soup, so I was able to dilute the taste of salt some. However, I will admit that the soup still held its own in terms of flavour and I nodded in appreciation of it being satisfying.
For the second course of my degustation, I had samosas with a tamarind chutney. The samosas at Bombay Spice are baked, which lends credence to the healthy aspect that the restaurant adds to its food. Unlike samosas that have been deep-fried, there was no flakiness to the crust. They were still stuffed with potatoes, peas, curry, and cumin, all which added a full blossom to the burst of flavour. Cutting through the crust required a tad bit of effort because where flaky crusts practically obey and fall apart, cutting a baked crust with a butter knife could result in part of the samosa scooting off the plate with a quickness. The tamarind chutney brought back to mind the chutney that I remembered from the Indian restaurant of my Mod Squad days, the sweetness without being saccharine, tamarind that you could actually taste without a syrup overload. After I finished performing my surgery cuts on the samosas so that they didn’t fly about the plate and table, I poured the tamarind chutney over the samosas and commenced to eating them to completion.
Where things really glowed was with the third course of my degustation. I had chickpea ceviche, which I found to be a unique twist on ceviche. In many, if not all, Latin American restaurants, ceviche is on the menu. After you have some the first time, there is almost a guarantee that you will want some every time you go to a Latin American eatery. The chickpea ceviche at Bombay Spice is nothing but a plate of love that deserves an encore in perpetuity. Chickpeas. Tomatoes. Onions. Tamarind. Mint. Yogurt. Me smiling and dancing — very, very small moves so not to be “that” evident. The papadam wafers that came with it completed the dish and I will say that this was the first time I have had ceviche so delightfully delectable that I could have stood in the middle of the restaurant and danced with jazz hands without compunction or care. I have been through markets and down side streets in India, feasting on street food and loving a favourite street dish called chaat — served by merchants with dirty hands — and I have downed it without complaint or bellyache. All while I was polishing off the ceviche I kept thinking that this was Bombay Spice’s version of chaat. Ceviche. Chaat. Someting thrown together on a dish. I could eat it endlessly.
With the ceviche, I had Bombay Spice punch. And oh did it pack a punch. We are talking Absolut vodka, hibiscus tea, Hum liquor, and agave nectar, shaken and then poured over freshly diced pineapple, mango, orange, and ginger ale. As if that is not enough, it is then topped off with red wine, and then garnished with orange and fresh basil leaf. My complements to the bartender because he was able to hide the alcohol rather well. It was a good thing that it was not summer and I was not thirsty like someone who had been crawling through a desert without any water. I was rather fine sitting, but when I stood after the meal, that was when I was then aware of how sleep-inducing the punch was. It was a wise idea for me to have started off with food prior to having the punch come to the table. I would have otherwise sang, babbled, drooled, and been on some video that would have become an embarassing viral sensation on the Internet.
The final dish in my personal degustation was chicken tikka. Having forgotten to order a side of rice with it, I had a plate of chicken in tandoori spices, roasted peppers, and onions. This dish indeed had a grill preparation to it, as chicken tikka comes in a gravy. The chicken tikka at Bombay Spice came with a cilantro raita that I think would have been perfect if the chicken dish had been incredibly spicy. There would then have been a balance to keep the tongue from feeling as though a burning ember had been placed upon it. After a few dips of the chicken morsels in the raita, I then opted to finish the dish as-is. I also was considering ordering some of the chickpea ceviche for take-away.
Bombay Spice Grill & Wine is one of those restaurants that I think would be a good introduction to someone who wants to ease into Indian dining, but still has a soft palate. The food is definitely tempered for the American palate and, as they say, when in Rome. During the lunch hour, the bartender doubled as a server and there was one other server. It may have been the timing when I went that the restaurant was not teeming with customers the way you see some restaurants after five o’clock and throughout the weekend. The servers were not inundated and the dining patrons were able to enjoy their meals without feeling neglected. As for prices, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to say what is too much, what is too little, and what is just about right. There is no Goldilocks assessment that I can apply. The bill was not more than I expected, but I will agree that I paid for what I got and that did not mean emptying my wallet. Before I left, I asked myself what I would have done during my Mod Squad days. The answer was to order the ceviche for take-away. That is exactly what I did. And then I went home and watched an old episode of the Mod Squad.