For many years, Woodlands restaurant on Orange Blossom Trail monopolized South Indian cuisine in this city. Not that their domination was a bad thing ' Woodlands' kitchen has always been consistent and their peppery all-veg fare gratifying. But in recent years, others have come to challenge Woodlands' supremacy; namely, Udipi Cafe in Longwood, and now Bombay Café, housed inside the Laxmi Plaza directly across the street from Woodlands. Go inside and traipse to the back of the building past the Indian grocery, fashion boutique and video store and there, on the right, a pleasant and pungent sanctuary awaits.
The ordering system isn't complicated: peruse a menu and order at the counter, take a number, have a seat and the food will be brought out to you. Thing is, the menu is somewhat daunting, so diners tend to seat themselves, then examine the menu, then head back to the counter, place their order, get a number and take their seats again (assuming they weren't taken by another party). The place really calls for table service, but it's a small hassle given the rewarding dishes the kitchen churns out.
Several chaat dishes offer a texturally diverse start to the meal: peanuts and puffed rice lend a marvelous crunch to gut-burning bhel puri ($3.95); creamy aloo tikki's ($3.95) potato base is punctuated with chickpeas and sweet and spicy chutneys; and the Bombay special ($4.95) offers the works ' fried lentil beans, chickpeas, sev, cilantro, tomato, onions and yogurt atop potato fritters. I wasn't all too impressed with diminutive potato vada ($3.50) dumplings (I'm partial to Woodlands' ample potato bonda), though midsize samosas ($2) were seasoned to satisfaction. Dosas are synonymous with South Indian fare, and traditional masala dosa ($5.99), with a potato and onion filling, is a crepe of comfort.
For me, pooris and baturas (fried poofy breads resembling blimps) offer the ultimate comfort. Sample the poori bhaji ($6.45), with seasoned potatoes, or the chole bathura ($7.45), a chickpea curry, and you'll concur. A friend of mine is hooked on garlic naan ($1.99), more of a Northern Indian delicacy, which she enjoys with saffron-tinged biryani mixed with paneer, peas, bell peppers and cauliflower.
The heady vegetable makes another appearance in sweet and hot gobi Manchurian ($7.99), only here the cauliflower is battered and lightly fried, served with an optional soy-based sauce. I prefer it with the sauce, though you can always get it on the side. Cheese cubes are tandoori-marinated in the thick paneer tikka ($9), a dish similar in taste to chicken tikka masala. My favorite curry, however, is the infernal dum aloo chettinad ($8.95). The neck-sweat'inducing dark potato gravy is redolent with cumin seeds, green chilies, tomato and ginger slivers, and best enjoyed with whole wheat chapati ($2.45).
With the blaze of spices, seasonings and chilies circulating through your bloodstream, there are, thankfully, plenty of coolants to help temper the heat. The mango or mixed-berry milkshake ($3.95) soothes while you eat; sweet, milky payasam ($2.50) with raisins, almonds and cashews effectively puts out the fire. (Use any leftover poori to scoop it up.)
A quote by Gandhi ' 'Be the change you want to see in the worldâ?� ' hangs on the wall behind the counter. It's a fitting maxim given Bombay Café's resolve in initiating a change of the guard.