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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Bombay Bicycle Club Just Wants to Have American Fun

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I’m not sure I understand the concept at the Bombay Bicycle Club, one of the high-profile restaurants next to the Golden State Freeway. The menu tells us that the original B.B.C. was founded in 1898 by a group of British colonial officers whose solemn duty it was to patrol the streets of Bombay on bicycles.

That explains, to stretch a point, the antique bicycles mounted over the bar, the chicken curry on the menu and even, perhaps, the papier-mache cockatoo and the ceramic giraffe used as decorations. (We’ll overlook the fact that these last two creatures are actually native to Africa.)

A few things do need explaining, though. What, for example, does an elite group of British officers have to do with present-day Burbank, and why does a restaurant with an Indian theme serve so much beef? Maybe I’m nit-picking, but I can tell you the restaurant is: A) not to be confused with the Bicycle Club, a card casino in the city of Bell Gardens; B) not an Indian restaurant at all, but more like a T.G.I. Friday’s clone--there are potato skins and fried zucchini sticks on almost every table, and C) wildly popular. Just try finding a parking space in the lot sometime.

The popularity makes sense. Anyone can see that this restaurant has been designed for fun, with its casually silly tropical theme. Everything from the carpet to the ceiling is tropical, including a team of young waiters decked out in uncomfortable-looking bush uniforms. There are murals and cane chairs and plants with long fronds and, at dinner, the rain forest density decor is intensified by throngs of young people on their way home from work.

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Drinks are themed, too. I’ve had Bombay lemonade, a lemony cooler made with gin and vodka, and the Rumrunner, a glassful of slush made with--get this--blackberry brandy, spiced rum, orange juice, sweet and sour, grenadine and a float of Bacardi 151. What does a Rumrunner taste like? Well, to me, like a melted Popsicle. But the real shocker is the glass it is served in, a tall one embossed with the words: Jungle Fever, made with Bacardi Dark Rum. Say it ain’t so, Spike.

You can safely gather that the restaurant is trying to have fun, and things are no different in the kitchen. The menu here is really quite diversified, revolving around a nucleus of good all-American sandwiches and salads and reaching out to the cooking of such countries as Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Jamaica and, of course, India.

Start with an exotic appetizer such as beef or chicken satay. These little skewers of grilled meat aren’t bad, trimmed and marinated and skewered just as they would be in an Asian restaurant and served with an unctuous, mildly spiced peanut sauce. But a couple of appetizers are just too far-fetched. New Delhi chicken tenders are long strips of breaded chicken served with orange marmalade, a condiment you’d be hard-pressed to find in India.

And Sri Lanka onion loaf? Gimme a break. This is just a clump of shredded, batter-fried onions molded into a loaf. I will admit that they taste pretty good.

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It is an unwritten rule that one is always better off with a steak at these theme restaurants and, indeed, both the top sirloin and smoked sirloin (the latter served in slices with a thick barbecue sauce) turn out to be quite flavorful. But your intrepid reviewer, inspired by the officer’s code on the menu, would not have slept soundly had he bypassed the Bombay chicken curry, which turns out to be an unappetizing mishmash of shredded coconut, mango chutney and minced bananas with lime, chicken, rice, a load of turmeric and more of that marmalade. Don’t eat all of this abomination if you want to, umm, sleep soundly.

You’ll be on far safer ground with more familiar fare such as barbecued ribs and shrimp fajitas. The ribs, a full rack, have a nice smoky flavor and come with a rich, if slightly sweet, barbecue sauce and excellent ranch-style beans. The shrimp are broiled and basted with jalapeno butter, and have an added touch of class to go with the good onions and peppers, Indian basmati rice.

The restaurant is at its indulgent best when it’s time for dessert. Something called volcano brownie torte delivers the coup de grace --it’s a chocolate fudge brownie topped with a chocolate peanut butter mousse, chunks of brownies, peanuts, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. If you’re after something more austere, consider the toffee crunch cheesecake. The menu describes this as “rich caramel cascading over cheesecake mousse and chunks of toffee on a toffee crust, topped with nuts and whipped cream.”

It does sound like overkill, but consider yourself lucky. As your mom always told you, people are starving in India.

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Suggested dishes: chicken satay, $4.75; shrimp fajitas, $9.95; smoked sirloin slices, $9.50; volcano brownie torte, $3.95.

Bombay Bicycle Club, 321 S. 1st St., Burbank, (818) 846-8711. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$35.


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