Bollywood Spice Indian Cuisine
2.5 out of 5 stars
25000 U.S. Highway 19 N., Clearwater. Appetizers: $3-$9; entrees: $12-$16; desserts: $4; wines by the glass: $4.25. 727-216-3840; bollywoodspiceindiancuisine.com.
In a world teeming with diverse cultures, it's amazing sometimes how little we know about the cuisine outside of our own ethnic heritage. My family is English, so roast beef and Yorkshire pudding loomed large in my culinary upbringing. I had a German grandmother, so potato pancakes were also part of family lore. Of course, all this is filtered through the sieve of 20th-century Middle Americana, where The Joy of Cooking reigned supreme.
As I'm collecting my thoughts about Clearwater's Bollywood Spice Indian Cuisine, a familiar face pops up on Facebook. It seems the day I'm writing is the birthday of my friend Sumitra Banerjee, and her daughter posts a picture of her late mother. I spent many happy days with this family in years gone by and am so glad that I had my first samosa — and many other Indian favorites — with a native guide to hold my hand.
Food always looms large as we create memories, and when it's linked to dear friends who are prematurely snatched from us by the scourge of cancer, the images are vivid. Sumitra taught me about tandoori spices, basmati rice and the complexity of homemade curries, and I can still see the proud gleam in her eyes as she lifted me from ignorance to revelation with the contents of her spoon.
So memories of that first samosa always serve as a touchstone when I go to a new Indian restaurant. Is the pastry golden and flaky? Does the potato filling, dotted with peas, possess both a seductive creaminess and enough resistance to the tooth that there's a sense of lightness rather than the density of mash. Is the seasoning balanced between salt and spice?
Faced with that checklist, Bollywood's samosa disappoints. The pastry is crisp, but not flaky. The filling is gray and dense, suggesting exposure to air which discolors potatoes, and the seasoning is timid.
Luckily, the onion bhaji is everything you could want in a crunchy, brown, spicy veggie fritter appetizer. Crispy papadam, accompanied by a shiny silver condiment tray of three relishes ranging from mild to fiery, is served alongside the starters — a surprising choice, because it should have arrived at the top of the meal as a welcoming treat.
Our star entree is the tandoori roasted mahi mahi fish tika. The bright spice rub is appealing, and the juicy pieces of fish fillet come sizzling on a platter topped with thin slivers of sautéed onion. It's well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. The butter chicken, however, is underwhelming. This popular dish bathes chunks of tender chicken in a seductive tomato cream sauce that's typically lush and sigh-inducing. Bollywood's version features smaller pieces of chicken than I usually see and the sauce lacks punch, with a slight acrid note that's disappointing.
The goat biryani features mounds of fluffy, nutty basmati rice flecked with herbs and bits of carrot, as well as a light curry sauce with sliced almonds. Buried throughout are small chunks of goat, many with small bones attached. Because of the large Hindu population in northern India, major animal proteins tend to be limited to chicken, lamb or goat. If you've never had goat before, don’t worry: it's not assertively gamey, but rather akin to mild grass-fed beef. This particular version is a huge portion of a simple dish that's a bit on the dry side.
Luckily, it's served with cucumber raita, which is a standard yogurt condiment often used to temper the heat that many natives welcome. I must admit that I'm a wimp and normally stay on the mild side. Mango chutney is also a welcome condiment. It's tangy rather than sweet, since it's made from unripe fruit. I almost always get some to tweak Indian dishes to taste.
We pair our meal with a bread basket of assorted naan, that delicious, warm bread baked in a traditional, round clay tandoor oven. The fresh yeast dough bubbles and chars and is a wonderful accompaniment alone, or to dip in the spicy sauces that accompany most of the menu. Our basket includes three variations: plain, garlic with butter, and whole wheat paratha with a thin coat of mashed potatoes and herbs. We order the basket to taste the variations, but beware — you'll be tempted to over-indulge.
Indian desserts are a hard sell for Western palates. There's no chocolate, whipped cream, cake or flaky pastry; they're distinctly different from European sweets. The closest to something familiar is kheer, India's version of rice pudding. Unfortunately, it's not available on our visit, so we are led by our server to try ras malai and gulab jamun. He brings our desserts, but removes none of the other dirty plates. In general, the staff is friendly, but the service is slapdash instead of attentive, even though there's not a big crowd. Thankfully, the smoldering Bollywood music videos, which play nonstop, are a fascinating distraction.
Ras malai are homemade soft cottage cheese dumplings soaked in sweetened milk and garnished with pistachios — they’re a south Asian cousin to cheesecake, minus the crust. Gulab jamun are essentially golf ball-size doughnuts soaked in sweet syrup. Without context, I'm perplexed. I want (need) my friend Sumitra to whisper guidance in my ear.
Sadly, I'm on my own.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.