Such is the case of the 90-seat Bombay Cuisine, located on the second tier of a strip shopping center in the University area. The advantage of being one story above the comings and goings of disruptive car headlights is apparent from the first moment you enter the secluded world of this charming restaurant. Step inside and inhale a succession of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin. Immediately inside the door is an imposing mixed-metal stature of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wealth and intellectuality, which engages you before you are swept into an Indian sunset. The walls, air brushed by local painter Jeff Mangum, depict muted scenes of southern and northern India: the Taj Mahal on one side, a fisherman on another.
Owner Bhupen Engineer is no stranger to the world of restaurants. Although professionally trained as a cost accountant in India, he started his current career in a Pizza Hut in Orange County, CA. He was quickly promoted to a divisional training instructor position. Years later he worked for Boston Chicken, where he was in charge of training and hiring employees. "I learned how to run a restaurant, the quality needed, from these experiences. Customer satisfaction is most important factor."
Engineer, a native of Bombay and a vegetarian, came east at the urging of his family and became co-owner of the Bombay Grilles in Raleigh and Pineville with Naval Sethi. Engineer managed the Raleigh location. That partnership dissolved, and he moved to Charlotte to open Bombay Cuisine last April. This April he hopes to open his second venture: a strictly South Indian vegetarian restaurant.
Engineer arrived at the design of Bombay Cuisine after visiting Bukhara, a high end Indian restaurant in the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi. Tables are set with copper covered utensils and copper chargers. Hot and cold drinks are served in copper cups, which keeps beer cold and tea hot. The lunch buffet section toward the back of the main dining room contains a group of circular stations in which the food is served from large hand-hammered copper pots, traditionally used for Indian wedding ceremonies. From the buffet area, diners may watch the chefs within a glass enclosed kitchen. The tandoor oven is directly against that wall allowing diners to peer in and watch naan cook against the side walls. The kitchen is staffed with culinary professionals with degrees from schools in New Delhi and Pondicherry.
Bowls of tamarind and minty sauces, and a basket of delicate pappadams were set before us as we perused the lengthy menu. The best appetizers are the simplest ones: crispy Samosas, house-made cheese Paneer Ragada patties, and generously portioned chickpea battered vegetable Pakora. Next to emerge from the kitchen was the perfectly fragranced Paper Masala Dosai, a two foot long crepe loosely wrapped around a vividly spiced mix of potatoes, onions, and nuts -- so flavorful that it could make a carnivore forget he is not eating meat. Drizzle a piece of the Dosai with the dip of your choice and stand back for a cascading flavorfall.
Typically, meats grilled in the tandoor clay oven are dry, which is not a result of the cooking process, but a preference since dripping juices are strictly forbidden in Indian culture. Engineer's history with Boston Chicken comes into play here. "We marinate the chicken twice," he says. This difference makes the rich and complex Chicken Tikka Masala extremely tender while you are also enjoying its savory bath of spice-laced yogurt.
Equally tender are the sizzling grilled lamb cubes flavored with the one-two punch of ginger and garlic. A spritz of lemon is all that is needed. The exceptional Dhum Briyani is a pot of rice infused with a torrent of spices, slivers of chili peppers, tomatoes, nuts, and succulent chucks of chicken, all sealed beneath a bread topping.
Breads are a must. Naan is made without eggs, a happy find for vegans. The unleavened Roti is served with a healthy portion of cooling raita.
For dessert try a refreshing creamy, housemade saffron, cardamom, and pistachio ice cream presented in a clay pot.
Prices are restrained. Baskets of breads are $2 to $4, appetizers are between $4 and $8, and entrees range between $8 for a vegetarian dish to $17 for seafood.
The few minor missteps by the service staff were all language related incidents. Sometimes English to English is the most difficult translation. Only a notable effort creates an atmosphere that invites diners to make plans to return before leaving, and that is what I heard from other diners when they left. I had to agree. I, too, shall return.