Month: October 2007

Bombay Delux: Earth, Wind and Fire

While Western attitudes about ethnic food have evolved over the past few decades, the American philosophy of the melting pot has morphed various cuisines from around the world to suit our own tastes. America is not unique to this cuisine alteration. When youlook at ethnic foods throughout history, all cultures influenceother countries’ food styles.
But when you look across the globe, the cuisine that was perhapsmost influenced by other cultures over time is that from the Indiansubcontinent. What we eat in an Americanized Indian restaurant,however, is dramatically different than what you’d get if youvisited India. The styles there differ greatly from one part ofIndia to the next, much in the way that northern Italian differsfrom southern Italian food.
Throughout the centuries, waves of invaders brought new stylesand ingredients to India. Within the last few hundred years, Indianfood was influenced by British colonialists who changed the natureof curry. They often added much more meat to the dishes and turnedthem to sauces whereas before, curry was used more as a flavoringagent on rice and vegetables. Prior to the British, Muslim invadersbrought a variety of lamb and other meat dishes. Before them,Central Asian, Greek, Persian and Aryan invaders brought their owncuisine, spices and flavorings. Ironically, the spiciness of somemodern Indian cuisine (modern being the last few centuries or so)can be attributed to a reverse migration of the pepper from theAmericas.
In Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, we learn that typically,two thousand years ago, Indians ate about two meals a day. Meals,ideally, consisted of 32 mouthfuls of food. Today, the typicalAmerican would triple or quadruple that number of mouthfuls in atypical meal. Tannahill also tells us that Indians were supposed tovisualize their stomachs in four parts for a meal; two to be filledwith food, one with liquid and a fourth to be left empty “to allowfor the movement of wind.” With lentils and curry common in Indianfood, the wind is not something I want to spend much time thinkingabout.
Bombay Deluxe is located along Northern Lights Boulevard, in atwo-story commercial strip center that looks architecturally likeit was imported from a busy city section of any of the numerouscountries I have visited in Southeast Asia. The ethnic grocerystore on one end of the building and the Korean restaurant on theother add to the ethnic fantasy of being somewhere other thanAnchorage.
Walking in, one sees the kitchen with the traditional Tandoorclay oven through a large window. It’s nice to see into a kitchen,and especially rare to have a view into an ethnic one.
The dining room is rich in red colors, with high-backed boothsand a central server station lined to the ceiling with glassware.The room is comfortable and cozy, with an aroma of rich foodscoming from the kitchen. I peruse the diverse menu, with acollection of dishes representing many different eras and styles offood from across India and surrounding countries. An assortment ofvarious seafood dishes, breads baked in the Tandoor, vegetarianspecialties and desserts round out the menu. For those who can’tdecide, there are combination dinners that have an assortment ofdifferent dishes. That’s what I go for.
The Chef’s special has a choice between Tandoori Chicken (withthe signature redness) or lamb Korma with Mattar Paneer (cheese,peas and tomato) or Palak Paneer (the creamed, spicy spinach withhomemade Indian cheese). Dal Makhni (lentels), Rice Pilau (longgrained basmati rice colored yellow from seasonings includingturmeric), Naan (traditional Indian flatbread) and Kheer Badaam,for dessert, are also included in the meal.
When the stainless steel platter with conveniently shapedsections for the different dishes came to the table, I knew that Iwouldn’t be able to finish in 32 bites. I chose the lamb Korma -juicy lamb in a cream sauce with fruit and nuts. This dish,according to Tannahill, was brought into northern India by theMughals, a Muslim empire that brought the concept of mixing fruitwith meat – typically a no-no in western cuisine, because, as mygrandmother put it, it “generates the vapors.” Could this be thewind referred to in the Indian rules for eating? These thoughtsevaporated as I directed my attention to the warm Naan bread. Ifound it divine. (The divine wind? No, that’s Japanese.) And when the Naan is used to sop up the sauce, it is even better.
The Palak Paneer was just the right amount of spice and the meal wrapped up with a wonderful rice pudding “flavored with cardamom and garnished with almonds and raisins,” according the menu. Ididn’t see any raisins, but the crunchy almonds and the sweetnessof the dessert cooled any lingering spice blowing around mymouth.
The menu says “serving the finest and authentic Asian IndianCuisine in Alaska,” which is an obvious statement as Bombay Deluxe(and their sister restaurant in Eagle River) are the only game intown when it comes to Indian food. Regardless of its monopoly, therestaurant gets my stamp of approval. It is worth the trip to thisfar away land. I think they do a great job of bringing a bit of the subcontinent to the far north.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, October 31, 2007

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Simon & Seafort’s

As a relative newcomer to Anchorage I often ask folks about thebest places to eat in town. It seems that Simon & Seafort’s isalways on the list. “On the far west end of downtown,” they tellme. “And the view is great.”

So, one day at lunch I meander to the far west of downtown alongFifth Avenue and enter a non-descript office building. Through thefoyer, past an art gallery, a large caribou head greets me througha doublewide entrance. I see the open kitchen off to my left withchefs in their whites. To my right is the entrance to the saloonarea. I arrive during the lunch hour but wait only a short whilefor my table. I’m seated on the second tier. It’s a clear day and Ican see across Cook Inlet to the mountains on the other side. Atugboat pulls a barge down the inlet and I strain my eyes to searchfor a pod of belugas. It surely is a grand view.

The waitstaff are all smartly dressed in black pants, whiteshirts and serving aprons. A side of fresh sourdough bread arriveshot as I continue to peruse the menu. I order a cup of the clamchowder off the regular menu and the butternut squash raviolis fromthe daily special list. My iced tea is refilled frequently and Ifind myself pleasantly experiencing a relatively uncrowded lunchhour.

The chowder arrives. It looks to be a nice consistency with lotsof potatoes and clams. My mouth, however, is somewhat overpoweredby a strong vegetable taste, which competes with and beats out theclam flavor. It’s also a bit on the salty side. Nevertheless, withthe sourdough bread, I manage to finish it, as the faults do notoutweigh the hunger I’m experiencing.

Two large, handmade raviolis arrive, looking grand as they siton the plate, dressed with walnuts, garlic and olive oil. I cutinto them with my knife and bite into the sweetness of the squash.This is good. The caramelized onions and sautéed kale make eachbite a cornucopia of flavor in my mouth. I vow to come back fordinner.

As I have not yet made very many dining companions, I findmyself eating alone on a Saturday night. I have always believedthat the proper place for a single man dining alone in a nicerestaurant is the bar, so I find an empty seat in the saloon. Theplace is humming. Almost every table has patrons either eatingdinner or enjoying cocktails while waiting for a table in thedining room. I had been told that the bar at Simon & Seafort’swas the kind of place where people gathered for the beginning oftheir night out. There are a few suspect tables that fit thatprofile, but I also witness families toting baby carriers and agroup of smartly dressed women celebrating a birthday, a secondbridal shower or a divorce party. It is hard to tell what they arecelebrating, but fun to guess at.

The décor is elegant, but I am reminded of what elegant décorfrom the 1970s may have looked like. It seems on the cusp of beingeither outdated or funky retro. I go with funky retro to complementmy mood. The bar is a long one, stretching the length of the northwall. On either side are bartenders frantically making drinks forwaitstaff serving both the bar and the restaurant. At times theyseem overwhelmed, but dressed in matching vests, they areprofessionals and create a rhythm suitable for dancing with theircocktail shakers. I order up a classic sidecar, even though,according to their cocktail menu, they specialize in making aKentucky Sidecar (with bourbon replacing the brandy). I am onlyslightly disappointed in the lime garnish (classically, it shouldbe a lemon) but the cocktail is made correctly with the sugar rim.I look up and see a large sculpture of an eagle with enormoustalons. Underneath is a brass plaque with what I later find out tobe a memorial to two former waitstaff, apparently a bartender and awaitress, I am told, who died tragically in a plane crash manyyears before.

I order the Maytag Blue Cheese Salad, a recommendation by one ofthe bartenders. Again I am served hot sourdough bread wrapped in awhite cloths resting in a wrought iron stand. The romaine lettucewith chopped egg, slivered almonds and blue cheese doesn’t havemuch pizzazz in the way of color or taste. It seems uninspired, andI’m surprised it’s being recommended to me as one of the favoritesalads. The other bartender recommended the Asiago-Almond CrustedSea Scallops. I hope that his recommendation fares better.

A long rectangular plate arrives and sits awkwardly on the barin front of me. Bars aren’t really designed for dining, so I makedo with arranging it in front of me. The scallops look good withcaramelized onions, roasted peppers resting on a bed of rice pilafand a Champagne beurre blanc sauce. The scallops are cooked to myliking, soft and tender with lots of give in the flesh. I followthat divine bite with a forkful of rice and sauce and am shocked atthe temperature difference. I try the onions and peppers on top:cold as well. While the scallops were great, the disappointmentwith the rest of the dish ruined what could have been a nicemeal.

Being a favorite among locals – a favorite to takeout-of-towners to, a favorite view – I can’t help but think therestaurant may be resting on its laurels just a wee bit. It’s anice enough place. I feel I need to check out the happy hour withhalf price appetizers on some future evening. Their various mojitoson the cocktail menu look enticing. But as the days get shorter,I’d have to recommend lunch with a less crowded atmosphere and the sun exposing one of the best views in town.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, October 24, 2007