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Can Rip Sidhu bring us fine-dining Indian cuisine with a menu full of familiar stews?
Rip Sidhu has little respect for most Indian restaurants in America. The chef and owner of Bombay Brazier, a native of Bhopal, India, tells me this emphatically with a raised pitch to his voice. “They come here and open restaurants in [former] Hardee’s and Chinese restaurants. No care for the atmosphere! The sauces are often limited to three basics: tomato based masala, white sauce [korma], and a curry, sitting in pans on heat. Cream, butter, a few spices, meat, or paneer”—more often purchased than house-made, Sidhu claims—“are added to the base. They all end up tasting the same. If you go to India, your jaw would drop at the difference. There is such a high standard for food…a lot of pride.”
Pride, for Sidhu, is not in short supply. He wants his restaurant—his first in Cincinnati, his third since leaving his profession as a software engineer 12 years ago—to be the benchmark for Indian fine dining. He and his wife/partner Baljit (known as “G”) are well on their way, but reaching their goal means executing their vision a little more precisely.
Sidhu arrived in the United States in 1991, when he was 25 years old. He attended college in Houston, acquired a degree and a career, and traveled the country. With a few exceptions, he was disappointed by the quality of Indian cuisine he discovered. “I could not find a good curry,” he says. So with occasional phone calls to his mother for instructions, he taught himself to cook a proper curry.
In 2000 he opened Chutnee Indian Fast Food—an 800-square-foot operation in the food court of Louisville’s Galleria mall. The original Bombay Brazier, in downtown Lexington, came three years later. Though it was a busy and successful restaurant, Sidhu sold it to a friend in 2010 (“I guess anything is for sale at the right price,” he says), and he and G moved to Cincinnati. The new Bombay Brazier opened in Montgomery, in the building formerly occupied by Jimmy D’s Steakhouse, in June of 2010.
When you enter the couple’s restaurant, it’s clear that it’s not a typical curry house. The room is warm, with new planked flooring; deep raspberry walls and ceiling; a glass bricked, 4,000-bottle wine room; and a bar stocked with 29 varieties of single malt Scotch. The tables are dressed in linen and flickering candlelight, the white napkins folded in fleur-de-lis and tucked into wine glasses. Swords and commissioned paintings of Sikh history and heroic battles by artist Kanwar Singh Dhillon line the walls.
The room seems to rarely fill to its 150-plus seat capacity, but nevertheless always has an array of diners: Indian families, neighborhood residents and business owners, couples heaping portions of fragrant basmati rice and spicy curry onto their plates and dousing the flame with cool mango lassis. The menu isn’t unfamiliar, focusing on popular Punjabi specialties found on most area Indian menus: tandoori meats, Indian flatbreads, dals, stews, biryani, and more. What may be unfamiliar are the price points.
We are conditioned to consider Indian food inexpensive food. Bombay Brazier’s appetizers begin at $11 and top out at $26; main courses start at $14 and climb to $28. Yes, you are paying for ambience, but Sidhu would like you to know that he doesn’t buy commercial sauces, that his curries are each made from scratch and to order, that they are an “intricate art” prepared with care by a chef in the kitchen—as opposed to, Sidhu says, “cooks ruining everything with heavy cream and butter.”
He makes his own paneer (a tofu-like cheese), marinating one-inch cubes on the spot and—for the marvelous appetizer Paneer Afghani—grilling it over the 400-degree clay tandoor oven, giving it a wonderful smoky flavor and a hit of black pepper. Sidhu says the spices are blended by hand, vegetables hand cut, and the chutneys made in house. Perhaps it will help justify the high ticket price if you know that the chicken tikka is moist and flavorful; that the tilapia filets marinated, baked in the tandoor, and served over sour cream and onions are tender, and that at $14 and $22 respectively, they are appetizers easily built for two.
Most of the menu is constructed in the mix ’n match style, with a dozen-plus northern-Indian style sauces available (vindaloo, madras, samber, mango, saag, rogan josh, and more) to pair with nine proteins (chicken, of course, plus lamb, beef, salmon, scallops, shrimp, prawns, lobster, and paneer). Service staff can, for the most part, steer you toward the best combinations, though lamb and chicken are a safe bet for nearly all (and lobster and scallops are not).
Vegetarians will find plenty of legumes, mushrooms, paneer, and vegetables dispersed among sauces redolent with garlic, ginger, herbs, and spices. Of these we particularly liked the baingan bhartha (pronounced BHURR-taah), a dish that refers to the ingredients (in this case eggplant cooked over an open flame, onions, garlic, ginger, and peas) mashed together. Rice helps modulate the heat kick if it’s a main course, but we liked it even better with spinach naan as a dipping tool.
The same smoky eggplant hits it off admirably with lamb in a dish under “chef’s special creations.” That’s where we also found one of the most highly recommended—and least interesting, after the overly sweet tikka masala—dishes on the menu, the lobster bhuna. The bhuna gravy on its own was fine (onions, garlic, turmeric, cumin, and tomatoes are the foundation), but the three small chunks of tough, overcooked lobster meat made us feel pinched for $28. The other similarly priced dish is for steak lovers: a 16-ounce hand-cut tandoori rib eye, which the chef marinates, sears, and blankets with thinly sliced sautéed mushrooms. Accompanied by red chili–laced potatoes, it is a very good steak that would have been great had it been “cooked to perfection” as promised, and delivered medium rare (as ordered) instead of medium well.
In a follow-up phone conversation, Sidhu—who was railing (and rightly so) against the Western bastardization of his homeland’s cuisine—told me that one of the most popular dishes in the States, chicken tikka masala, was not to be found on any menu in any restaurant in India. He was seemingly offended that it appears on his own. Sidhu went on to describe the famous (or infamous, depending on whether or not you align with his loathing) tomato-and-cream sauce as a dish conceived for the Western palate, hard-wired as it is for fat and sugar. McGuilty as charged. Legend says the dish originated with the Brits—and in true folkloric fashion, has to do with a demanding diner, an exasperated chef, and a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. But if tikka masala is merely a concession or a gateway dish, why is it the only item out of nearly 60 dishes tagged “Highly recommended!” as well as plugged to us by three different servers on three different visits? We gave in on visit number three. The chicken was flavorful, the gravy not unlike SpaghettiOs.
Bombay Brazier’s service is warm and friendly, and both Rip and G are highly visible, making a point to connect with each and every table. It’s obvious they want to shift the perception of Indian cuisine away from the prevalent homogeny and elevate the dining experience. If so, let the chef start by removing the dishes he considers insulting. And then stretch out. Bombay Brazier’s curries are a cut above those served at dozens of other area restaurants, but a truly elevated dining experience would feature more of India’s richly varied cuisine. There is a wealth of seductive flavors just waiting to be introduced. We’re ready.
Bombay Brazier, 7791 Cooper Rd., Montgomery, (513) 794-0000
Appetizers $11–$26; entrées $14–$28
House made, Punjabi-style curries amid cozy, candlelit comfort.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.