Virtually Indian at Tampa's Bollywood Cafe

Bollywood Cafe mines Indian cinema and technology for a surprisingly fun — and tasty — dining experience.

click to enlarge RED ALERT: The chicken tikka is moist and well-seasoned, with variations that go beyond the usual red-stained meat. - jamesostrand.com
RED ALERT: The chicken tikka is moist and well-seasoned, with variations that go beyond the usual red-stained meat.

I struggle to mask my disappointment when I first sit down at Bollywood Cafe, a new Indian-themed restaurant in the sparkling experimental prototype community of tomorrow commonly referred to as Westchase. On first glance, everything was as it should be: the walls decorated in a riot of Bollywood movie scenes featuring some of the biggest movie stars in the world, none of whom I can name; the dining room outfitted in modern molded high-tops and squared-off white leather booths; the music a relentless dub of Indian cinema's frenetic and catchy tunes, accented by widescreens showing correspondingly energetic dance numbers rife with comical double-takes and chaste romanticism. Perfect.

But from the very beginning of Bollywood Cafe's impressive push for Internet recognition, well before the doors even opened for business, I was seduced by the technolicious idea that each table would have it's own touchscreen computer, allowing diners to order electronically, video chat with the staff, watch videos and even — perhaps — surf the Web. Who cares how good the food is when you can do all that from the comfort of your vinyl bench seating, mango lassi in hand?

Almost two months after opening, however, there's no newfangled dining technology to be seen besides a couple of touch screens bolted to the front counter. Thankfully, Bollywood's food is good enough to remind me that this is a restaurant first, and a computerized dining innovator second.

You wouldn't know it from the menu, though, which is an unorganized chaos of bound pages interlaced with loose stapled packets, all printed in a riot of mind-altering color and close-up food porn. Trying to puzzle through it, I realize that Bollywood hasn't changed their original ideas one whit: Each page is printed directly from a screen shot of the restaurant's future online ordering system. According to the waiter, the owners decided to expand into the space next door and plan on installing the screens after it's complete in the next couple of months. In the meantime, you can just about see the future in the virtually virtual menu.

Look at those pages and you might get the impression that the food is a bit silly, geared more toward convenience and fun than serious Indian cuisine. There's a slew of "urban Indian" fusion dishes, like French fries roasted in butter, covered in melted cheese and tossed with Indian spices; "Goan" ham and cheese pizza; mango and chicken tikka tacos; tandoor chicken vodka penne; and "Lankan" quesadillas. The fries are a hit and some of the other dishes are tasty enough to serve as bar food that's climbed out of the box, but most of it is more style than substance. Get past the "urban Indian" fusion, however, and you'll find simple but surprisingly tasty traditional cuisine.

The tikka is moist and well-seasoned, with variations that go beyond the usual red-stained meat. The shocking green mint tikka is loaded with bright herbs and a melange of dry spices (order a side of tandoor chicken and you'll be prepared for Christmas). The restaurant's khorma is rich and deeply flavored, especially the paneer version made with thick cubes of farmer's cheese, the tofu of India.

Bollywood even manages to inject some more unusual options into the standard array of American Indian restaurant classics. Instead of channa masala you'll get pav bhaji, a powerful vegetable curry built on potatoes and peas that has a wonderful acidic tang, although the side of buttered and toasted hamburger buns — instead of naan — is an odd choice. There's also nihari, featuring cubes of incredibly tender beef in a mild curry gravy, and excellent lamb chops glazed with a sweet soy and mango sauce.

The restaurant makes dozens of different juice drinks, advertised over and over again by the tooth-rattling grind of the blender behind the front counter, as well as a bright, made-to-order lime soda that comes either sweet or salty. If you're planning on asking for spicy versions of your dinner dishes, get a yogurt lassi available in traditional, mango or strawberry flavors. Fat tempers heat.

So, no touch screens — at least for a while — but you can still catch the hits from Bollywood's prolific Hindi-language movie factories on Thursday night, or over the weekend, on an enormous projection screen out on the restaurant's expansive outdoor patio, or inside on the large monitor in the dining room.

Those movies, the menu, the food, the drinks, and the infectious energy of the place are all part of how Bollywood Cafe has successfully leveraged it's theme to the hilt, without delving too deeply into kitsch, investing the place with an aura of cinematic authenticity. It may not be real, but it's real enough at 50 frames per second.

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