India is very large and our kitchen is very small,” reads the menu at Bombay Cafe, a modest but enticing Indian restaurant set in a mini-mall at Santa Monica Boulevard and Bundy Drive. A milky neon light, sputtering and faint, heralds the upstairs location, yet Indian-food aficionados find their way. The decor consists of vermilion-framed mirrors and a naive mural of an Indian village, where children lead elephants outside the gates, women balance jugs of water on their heads, and rooftops sprout TV antennas. From the open kitchen comes the sound of chopping and the clang of pots. Drifts of cardamom, ginger and cumin perfume the air.
The cafe’s kitchen may be small, but Neela Paniz and her partner, David Chaparro (who met at her first restaurant, Chutneys), manage to pack a world of flavors into the array of vividly spiced Indian dishes. What they can’t fit onto the menu turns up sooner or later as one of the daily specials. Still, don’t expect to find a full panoply of meat dishes and main courses. The real interest here lies in the delicious and unusual savories, snacks, chutneys and side dishes.
Bombay Cafe is just what its name implies: a cafe, with food that is very close in spirit and taste to Indian home cooking. Many of the recipes come from Paniz’s family; others she has re-created, with ingredients available here, to come as close as possible to a remembered taste from her childhood. A few are her Indian-California innovations.
The food at most Indian restaurants in this country has a discouraging sameness to it, and it often tastes as if it’s been sitting in a buffet steam table for days. Here, the spices are all freshly ground, and each masala (spice blend) is mixed at the restaurant.
Most appealing are the street foods Paniz relished as a student of economics in Bombay. Puffed rice appears in an exotic guise as bhel puri , tossed with potatoes, sev (crispy chickpea - flour noodles) and crushed puri (fried dough), onions, cilantro and bright-tasting chutneys. Sev puri consists of crisp, miniature puri heaped with chutneys and potatoes and buried under a blanket of ocher sev.
The triangular Gujerati-style samosas, stuffed with potatoes and peas, have a thinner, crispier wrapper than the usual doughy Punjabi-style samosas and are served with a sweetly sour tamarind sauce. Chutneys are a passion with Paniz, and she usually has 10 to 12 vibrant homemade ones on hand. Perhaps the best way to enjoy them is thoroughly untraditional: an order of deep-fried samosa wrappers served like chips with a changing trio of chutneys--often, a smoldering pumpkin-tomato chutney, a fresh coconut one laced with black mustard seeds and a traditional Kashmiri walnut chutney made with yogurt, garlic and green chiles. Hot, deep-fried bites of fish, dipped in a golden-brown chickpea-flour batter, are homely but completely delicious with lime squeezed over and a dab of sweet tomato chutney. And I’m crazy about chola baturas , a Punjabi truck-stop snack--pillowy rounds of deep-fried naan to dip in a tangy, homemade yogurt, or cholas , a soupy chickpea stew redolent of browned onions and ginger.
Frankies, a popular snack on Bombay’s Breach Candy Beach, look very much like an egg-washed burrito. The best here is filled with a dark and fragrant lamb masala and lime-drenched onions. Vegetarians can get it with green-chile-spiked cauliflower. Or try the 14-inch-long dosa , a South Indian “crepe” folded around turmeric-dyed potatoes flavored with cumin and kari (curry) leaves. Add sambar (soupy toor dal , a kind of lentil, cooked with coconut and chiles) and a dab of the snowy fresh coconut chutney to taste.
Of course, the cafe has the requisite tandoor that brings the average customer in the door. It’s better than most, though, like so much tandoor, the meats and especially chicken can emerge somewhat dry from the searing hot clay oven. Here I favor the shaan-eh-murg , chicken marinated in yogurt and freshly ground ginger, garlic and green chiles. The spicy tandoor-cooked lamb sausage called malai seekh is also juicier than most.
The runaway favorite at Bombay Cafe has to be the Sindhi chicken, a traditional dish from the province, now part of Pakistan, where Paniz’s mother was born. Quartered chickens are first gently poached with onions, ginger and green chiles, then left in the spiced broth to cool. Just before serving, the bird is dusted with sour mango powder, cayenne and coriander and then sauteed. The gentler spices seem to penetrate to the very bone while the bright, intense heat resides in the crust. There is also a chicken special each night, such as Punjabi-style chicken curry, chicken korma or dahi pepper chicken flavored with black pepper, ginger and green chiles.
There is Indian beer and a handful of California wines, including the Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, a rose that plays off the complex spices in this food. Paniz uses her mother’s recipe for nimbu soda, which involves making a syrup with lemon and sugar and then spiking it with fresh ginger juice and sparkling water. Her own invention is an iced version of Indian tea flavored with cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, green cardamom and mint. It’s served with sweet milk on the side.
While none of the food here is what I would call searing hot, desserts seem designed to soothe the palate with cool, smooth textures and sweet spices. There’s a comforting, creamy rice pudding shot with cardamom and two kinds of kulfi , cone-shaped Indian ice-creams-on-a-stick. The first is laced with candied ginger, the other suffused with ripe mango. From start to finish, flavors ring out bright and true. It is Neela Paniz’ abiding affection for the simple foods of India that makes Bombay Cafe hard to resist.
Bombay Cafe, 12113 Santa Monica Blvd . , Los Angeles ; (310) 820-2070. Parking garage. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch; Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. Beer and wine. Most major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.