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Tandoor Mercies

As a kid I did not trust the cuisine of India. Hey, there could have been anything in there--monkey brains, for all I knew, or even worse: green peppers. Because ethnic food had not yet reached our little pocket of suburbia (pizza was as exotic as it got), we had to travel dahn-tahn to an area that could only be described as smelly and dark. (Since this was Pittsburgh, that description could have applied to all of dahn-tahn.) As our knowledge of things Indian ended and began with Rudyard Kipling, my sister and I were convinced that we would be kidnapped and sold into slavery by one of the turban-clad characters who served our food, so we stuck close to the parents and tried not to stare. The restaurant must have had plenty of experience with children, though, for within minutes we were happily munching on tiny, previously frozen pizzas while the more adventurous adults in our party were treated to tray after tray of the weird stuff.

It wasn't long before I tried the weird stuff myself; Indian food is particularly well suited to college budgets and forays into indignant vegetarianism. And while it never makes my eyes roll back into my head in gustatory ecstasy, I still find Indian food dependable, filling and usually easy on the wallet.

At the three-month-old Bombay Clay Oven, a sterile but classy plaza placeholder, the dependable and filling traits hold true but many of the prices sit at the higher end of the scale. And so far, Bombay's slow kitchen and inexpert service have dragged our dining experiences below the level implied by the prices on the menu.

When you finally get it, however, the food is certainly good. Part-owner and chef Cedric Miranda confirmed my suspicions that everything, from the yogurt to the pickles, is made on the premises--except, as Miranda confessed, "the tomato paste is too much trouble to make by hand." The restaurant is also committed to extending the inherent healthiness of the food by using Fry-on--a combination of canola and corn oils that has no cholesterol and is low in fat--instead of ghee.

Fry-on makes for a cleaner taste in things like batura ($1.95), a wheel of leavened bread that is deep-fried for a greasy texture but a light, nongreasy flavor. Bombay also offers several tandoor-baked breads; my favorite was kabuli naan ($1.95), a leavened bread filled with raisins and slivered almonds that would be perfect for breakfast. Unfortunately, the bread spent too much time in the tandoor clay oven: half of it was burned.

Bombay uses gas-powered tandoors instead of the traditional coal- or wood-burning ovens, Miranda says, because coal leaves food too blackened and wood is too expensive. You can see Bombay's tandoors in action--the restaurant features a squeaky-clean exposition kitchen with the ovens set right against the window.

The tandoori chicken ($7.25 for half, $12.95 for whole) emerged from those ovens perfectly cooked. The bird had been marinated in yogurt and a hint of lemon juice, along with one of Bombay's nebulous spice combinations that tastes of everything and no one thing at once. The chicken's skin was toasted to a delicate crunch, and the meat inside was incredibly tender. On the side was the saffron rice that accompanies most of the entrees, ever-so-light on the saffron, with just enough for color but little for the tastebuds.

There was plenty to taste in the other entrees we tried. Vegetable jalfrazie ($7.95), a blend similar to Chinese stir-fry, featured chunks of homemade cream cheese similar to what you can make in your own kitchen by draining a good-quality yogurt of its whey through cheesecloth. Although the dish contained less than three ounces of the cheese, there was so much other stuff that it was only slightly missed: onions, red and green peppers (yes, I eat them now), tomatoes, corn, peas and green beans sauteed in a tomato-based sauce spiked with cumin, lemon juice and copious amounts of paprika. The dried chile peppers weren't mentioned on the menu, but neither were the corn, the peas or the green beans, all of which added to the mildly spicy and complex dish.

The chicken Kashmiri ($9.75) wasn't as packed with elements, but it was bathed in one of the few truly rich Indian sauces I've sampled. Based on bananas, it was held up by sour cream and a slight onion hint; the raisins sprinkled over the top added a welcome touch of sweetness that countered the sauce's richness. This chicken was as tender as the one that came out of the tandoor, although the portion was on the shy side: about a half-breast's worth of strips.

Lunch is a better deal financially, although the food is less interesting. For $5.95 a buffet serves up salad and three or four dishes from the regular menu, as well as tandoori chicken and naan, the plain, leavened tandoor-baked bread. On our visit buffet entrees included sarson ka saag ($4.50 on the lunch menu), mixed vegetable curry ($4.50) and the pindi chole ($4.50). The saag was the typical puree of cooked mustard greens and spinach tinged with ginger and tomato; the texture is funky but you can't beat it for sheer good nutrition. The curry was easy on the heat (can't overdo it with the business crowd) and the pindi chole was overflowing with chickpeas; both sat in tomato-based liquids. The salad, a miserable pile of shredded, mostly brown lettuce, was accompanied by a mango dressing thick with sour cream.

There's another bonus to the lunch buffet: You can serve yourself. The waitress who forgot to bring our mango chutney ($1) at lunch was also our server at dinner; we were dismayed to find only two waitresses working in a dining room with thirteen occupied tables, two of which had seven people. Needless to say, our dishes were a long time in arriving--and then were often hurriedly thrown on the table. One casualty was my mulligatawny soup ($2.50), which appeared after we had been seated for some time but still before our appetizer; part of it splashed over the side of the tiny metal bowl. The portion was only about a half-cup, so it was a shame to lose any of it, especially since the soup was a heavenly, smooth lentil puree in a chicken-stock base that tasted faintly of ginger and cumin. In the kitchen's haste they had forgotten the rice and chicken garnish promised on the menu.

When the appetizer arrived after what seemed like days, we were starving for the meat samosas ($2.95), two balls of dough filled with spicy minced lamb and peas and then deep-fried. The waitress plopped a tray with two sauce-filled bowls down on the table, spilling both. One was a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce and the other a mixture of mint, garlic and yogurt; both were just right for the samosas.

Once the waitress realized how long everything was taking, every time she walked out of the kitchen (which was frequently) she would announce that our long-overdue entrees would soon be out. By the time we got to dessert, these predictions were becoming annoying, so I asked for the check as soon as she brought the kheer ($3.50) and the kulfi ($2.50). Kheer is a traditional rice pudding made by steeping cooked rice--sometimes with lentils, but always with raisins and nuts--in milk flavored with rose water. Bombay leaves out the lentils but does add a good deal of sugar, which makes for a too-sweet version of what would otherwise be a nice ending. The kulfi is Indian ice cream, and its texture often comes as a surprise to diners used to the American kind; it's made by boiling and reducing milk with flavorings, then pouring the concoction into a special conical mold and freezing it. Bombay makes mango and pistachio flavors; we tried the pistachio and enjoyed both its nutty taste and unique consistency.

Bombay Clay Oven's inconsistent service is another matter. The restaurant's quality food has probably made the place busier than the owners anticipated, but they're going to have to pick up the pace if they want it to stay that way.

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