If you've ever been on a big bike ride, an extra-long run or a major hike, whether in the wooded foothills or up and down and all around the mall, you know what I mean when I talk about food fantasies.
These involuntary, undeniable visions stem partly from the work you're doing, the calories you're burning. The rest comes from the wonderful notion that your imagination can smell and taste and anticipate.
So there I was, in the middle of a 14-mile run along the American River – in the rain, no less – when my mind took flight. My legs were getting wobbly. My stomach was beyond empty.
Then I thought about food.
Those fantasies swept me away to a new restaurant on 21st Street in midtown Sacramento that has already enchanted many, myself included.
It's bright, alive, friendly, delicious. What's not to love about Bombay Bar and Grill?
Owned by brothers Navinder and Nekbir Bhandel, and open since April, this is a restaurant that really gets it. It has great hours, good prices, nice portions, a full bar and a commitment to excellence. The Bhandel brothers want to make it happen. They want to turn occasional customers into devoted regulars. In fact, one of our visits was on Christmas for dinner, when the place was hopping while the rest of town seemed sound asleep.
Further, the brothers hire smart people with plenty of personality, folks who understand that the experience of going out to eat includes all kinds of intangibles.
But the food? A restaurant's reputation has to start and end with that. Exotic, balanced and precisely prepared, the food at Bombay is an absolute winner, thanks to a capable kitchen led by Sanjiv Sharma, a chef with exacting standards. Beyond the fine cooking, the sourcing of ingredients is impressive, including free-range chicken and top-shelf Niman Ranch lamb so tender it practically dissolves on your tongue.
Then comes the sizzle, and I know that's something I will hear in my sleep for months to come.
Cleaned up from the run, we arrived at the restaurant famished and ordered a showcase of Indian cooking at its finest. The Punjabi Grill ($8.95) and something called the Mixed Grill Platter ($17.95) featured meat and fish marinated in a yogurt-based sauce, cooked in a traditional tandoori oven with hot coals and served on a piping-hot platter.
It wasn't long before we could hear our entrees in the distance, steaming and sizzling loudly over the upbeat music to such an extent that heads turned, nostrils flared and the young couple at the next table seemed transfixed as the plates came out from the kitchen.
It only got better. The chunks of chicken and cubes of lamb in the Punjabi Grill were outstanding – tender and loaded with nuanced flavor. A little smoke, a hint of char and an undercurrent of spices. The quality was unmistakable.
The mixed-grill dish was a great value – salmon, prawns, chicken and lamb two ways – so much food that it would be plenty for sharing. Order some rice, some garlic naan bread or, as we did, naan stuffed with goat cheese and spinach ($3.25), and make it a feast.
The dishes were so good – including that enduring sizzle – that the adjacent couple added to their order, smiling at us as their own noisy platter arrived minutes later.
"I had to do it," the fellow said with a chuckle.
We also enjoyed the Thali-style experience with our order of chicken biriyani ($10.95) – small pieces of chicken cooked in basmati rice. It was a large portion, gently seasoned and prepared with precision.
Here, Thali style means your food comes on a large metal tray, with a main course and several side dishes.
Part of the fun at a good Indian restaurant is dialing in the level of spicy heat you desire, anywhere from mild to "American hot" – or if you want to make smoke billow from your ears, turning some heads by asking for "Indian hot."
Yes, "Indian hot," or extra-hot, will get the server's attention, possibly raise eyebrows in the kitchen and mark you as a potential hero to the customers within earshot – but not if the food, once consumed, makes you gasp, whimper and curl up in a fetal position.
Going overboard with heat, as we detailed months ago in our review of the excellent Shoki Ramen House, can overwhelm the palate, deaden the taste buds and diminish the overall experience. I witnessed a man at Shoki practically melt away, beads of sweat forming over his brow, as a bowl of super-spicy broth got the best of him. The advice here is simple: Know your tolerance for heat, then go up in small increments if you feel adventurous.
On another visit to Bombay Bar and Grill, I ordered my Lamb Jalfrazie "Indian hot," and while I loved the extra fire on a plate of perfectly cooked free-range lamb, cauliflower, potatoes and carrots, I managed with a big assist from a tall glass of New Belgium Fat Tire ($4), an amber ale that, with its own broad and complex flavor profile, is an appropriate complement to the cuisines of India.
Indian food is often a good bet for vegetarians, as we discovered many months back at the humble but delicious Udupi Cafe in Rancho Cordova. Bombay has several meatless options; one we enjoyed was the vegetable korma, a dish based on a sauce flavored with cashews and nutmeg. This unassuming item turned out to be one of our favorites, a winning combination of soothing and subtle and complex.
The showstopper at Bombay just might be the Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish so popular that experienced diners might forgo it for something less ubiquitous. But you have to try it at Bombay Bar and Grill because the sauce is so superbly balanced, with that telltale melding of spices and a subtle creaminess lingering on the palate. This is the kind of dish that will inspire further food fantasies, whether we're talking 14 miles in the rain or 14 minutes surfing the Internet.
Drinks? We had a few. Our favorite was the "Midtown Shuffle," a fruit-based concoction with a touch of tartness, all balanced in a chilled glass. There is also a selection of beers in the bottle or on tap, as well as several wine choices. If you want something nonalcoholic, try the thick, soothing mango lassi, a yogurt-based shake that can cool your palate when the going gets hot.
Bombay Bar and Grill is clearly here to stay and is a good bet no matter what experience you're after – a stop at the bar for drinks, a quick appetizer or two on the way out for the evening, or a full sit-down feast.
In this troubled economy, with no quick fix on the horizon, it's a restaurant that demonstrates how savvy, friendliness and superior cooking can overcome the odds and create a bona fide success. Since April, it has been part of the new excitement that has come to a street that used to seem dead after 6 p.m.
Now that I've finished writing, my mouth is watering once more, inspiring a new food fantasy and more wonderful anticipation – how it will smell and taste when next I visit, and yes, how it will sizzle.
BOMBAY BAR AND GRILL
1315 21st St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Full bar: Yes
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
This may be a new restaurant, but the owners are clearly not new to the restaurant business. Combine superb food, a quality staff and a lively, fun atmosphere, and you have a formula for success.
Food: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
From chicken and lamb dishes out of the tandoori oven to vegetarian offerings with complex curry sauces, the cooking is precise, lively and delicious, and the quality of ingredients rises above the competition's.
Service: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Our several visits found servers who knew the menu, were quick to give smart suggestions, paid attention to our needs and did it all with a touch of charisma.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
OK, so I wouldn't decorate my house with these colors and patterns, but it works at this restaurant. The place is lively, friendly and, most of all, fun. Why can't more places be this upbeat?
Value: 4 stars (excellent)
Given the quality of the meat and seafood, along with the consistency in the cooking, we were thrilled when we saw how much it all cost us.
Noteworthy: Bombay Bar and Grill isn't like your typical restaurant serving Indian cuisine, and that includes putting the kibosh on the lunchtime buffet. You won't miss it when you order off the menu and see how fresh everything is.