There are lots of “ins” and “outs” at Bombay Spice. And healthy, flavorful fare is a big “in” at this casual River North Indian eatery.
An offshoot of a popular Phoenix-based restaurant, Bombay Spice specializes in “home-style Indian food,” says executive chef Sunil Kumar. “In India, if you want heavy food, you go to a restaurant.”
John Kapoor, the eatery’s founder, wanted to make light Indian food — the scent of which doesn’t cling to your favorite sweater or leather jacket — available to American diners as well. So he and Kumar fashioned a menu of fresh, healthy shareable small-plate appetizers and do-it-yourself entrées, most weighing in at around 500 calories.
On the “outs” are ghee — that heavenly, sinful clarified butter — and full-fat yogurt, cheese and cream. Also gone is the ubiquitous and heavy “cashew gravy,” which has “good flavor, but after you have it, you fall asleep,” Sunil says. Oh, and deep frying is also a big no-no.
Instead, Kumar relies on olive oil, fat-free yogurt and tofu. Searing and baking are the preferred cooking methods. And the chef employs a plethora of spices to give his dishes zing and zip. With the exception of one item — the Häagen-Dazs mango sorbet on the dessert menu — “we make everything in this kitchen from scratch,” Kumar says.
The restaurant also aims to demystify the often complex process of ordering at an Indian establishment.
“When you go to an Indian restaurant, the menu is like a book. Even an Indian gets confused as to what to order,” Kumar says.
Bombay Spice’s menu is a mere two pages long. The first page is filled with soups, salads and hot and cold appetizers. The second features Indian breads and a brief list of mix-and-match entrées. Diners pick a sauce — curry, masala, korma, spinach or vindaloo — and its heat level (mild or hot), and then add proteins and/or veggies.
To further minimize confusion, all entrées come with a carb option (basmati or brown rice, quinoa or noodles) and a crunchy, peppery papadum wafer.
“The biggest complaint in Indian restaurants is that rice and bread are not included,” Sunil says. “We have the rice and the papadum.”
Indian food lovers one and all, my family joined me at Bombay Spice on a recent visit. The Husband, The Kids and I started with — and really liked — the restaurant’s award-winning chickpea ceviche ($6.95). This cold starter combines the protein-packed legumes with tomatoes and onions and dresses them in a light, citrus-infused sauce. The dish was topped with crunchy cereal, a popular addition to Indian street food, and accompanied by a crisp baked — not fried — papadum, which made a perfect scooper for those errant, roly-poly chickpeas.
Coming at a perfect pace, our next plate featured a sweet and mushy pan-seared eggplant ($5.95) with tamarind sauce and a wonderful little dash of hot Bombay chat masala sauce.
At my kids’ suggestion, we sampled grilled tandoori wings ($6.95 for six, $11.95 for twelve). Well seasoned with Kumar’s “nine-spice mix,” the jumbo wings were big, meaty and far tastier than any fried wing I’ve sampled (outside of Buffalo, of course).
Light but satisfying homemade lentil cakes ($5.95) had a soft, potato-like consistency and taste. Topped with a dice of tomatoes, onions and crispy chickpea flour noodles, the crispy seared patties were served with a fresh, mint-laced tamarind sauce.
Tikka sauce-marinated pan-roasted salmon ($10.95) with sweet mango-mint chutney could have easily served as an entrée, but worked well as a progressive shareable plate.
Rather than splitting our entrées ($9.45–$14.45) as we normally do when we go Indian, each member of our group picked a favorite combination and ran with it. I won’t bore you with the configurations, but our proteins included chicken, lamb and veggies. We threw in brown rice, basmati and quinoa. And we tried nearly all of the sauces — which here are more like dressings (rather than swimming pools) for chicken, lamb, seafood and vegetables. Admittedly less comforting than traditional Indian curries, the dishes were still homespun without being sleep-inducing.
Tomato-coconut masala sauce was spiked with paprika, turmeric and the aforementioned nine-spice mix. Hot vindaloo mixed onion, ginger, garlic, vinegar and a palette of Indian spices. And here, my personal favorite, spinach (saag), was a cream-free stew of the leafy green veggie mixed with broccoli, fresh garlic, ginger, tomatoes and fenugreek.
Eating light left us with even more room for dessert than usual. Kumar offers two sweets in addition to the sorbet. Topped with pistachio crumbles, the rosewater and cardamom-laced milky rice pudding ($4.95) is less creamy but every bit as flavorful as one would find in a traditional Indian restaurant, while warm and spongy shredded carrot halwa ($4.95) was reminiscent of a deconstructed Indian carrot cake. By this point, cashew gravy or no cashew gravy, our satisfied posse was ready for a good night’s sleep. And, as they say in Hindi, subh ratri, or good night!
450 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654