Step into Ashok Bajaj's Bombay Club on Connecticut Avenue, two blocks from the White House, and you enter India in the days of the British raj.
The aroma of Indian spices wafts in the air, stirred from high ceilings by slowly moving fans. Leafy potted plants stand against louvered shutters inviting shafts of sunlight into the room by day and treating passersby to a glamorous glimpse into the dining room by night.
In the evenings, a pianist adds a touch of class. Waiters are attentive and well-informed. There's a nice buzz of conversation giving life to the room. All that's missing is the elegance of evening dress.
The Bombay Club has been around since 1988, and the cooking — under new chef Nilesh Singhvi — is inspired. The menu, identical at lunch and dinner, is a mix of Bombay Parsi meat dishes, Goan fish specialties, North Indian Mogol cooking and the spice of South India.
Appetizers are marvelous, and best of all is shrimp cafreal. The shrimp, pan-seared in a deep green sauce of ground coriander leaves, mint, ginger and garlic, are juicy, and the sauce, or chutney, gives them a delicious, tangy, citrus-like flavor.
Duck kebabs, thin, cigar-like sausages of ground duck meat mixed with chili, nutmeg and other spices, are delicious. They are grilled in a tandoor, or clay oven, and served sprinkled with coriander. The duck flavor is barely apparent; the kebabs are spicy without being hot. Lamb kebabs, spiced with coriander, are grilled over charcoal.
Chicken tikka, chunks of boneless cuts, are marinated in pickling spices and cooked in the tandoor. The chicken is fork-tender, faintly acidic and especially good dipped into the coriander and mint sauce.
Crab masala is a simple combination of excellent fresh crabmeat mixed with chopped onions and curry leaves. The crab is lightly sauteed.
The menu includes several vegetarian appetizers such as samosas and lentil dumplings, and the delicious Bombay specialty of small crisp puris, which serve as shells filled with a tiny dice of potatoes, mangos and onions topped with chopped mint, dates and a bit of tamarind sauce.
Main courses, which can be shared, are divided into Northwest Frontier specialties and Indian curries, which range from mild, such as white chicken korma, to hot, as in the green-chili chicken. Waiters can advise about the heat.
The meats are primarily cooked in a tandoor, which is fired with charcoal. Tandoori dishes include marinated shrimp, lamb chops, trout, salmon and chicken.
The salmon, one of Mr. Singhvi's specialties, consists of two marinated thick salmon filets, barbecued in the tandoor. The result is smoky and moist. Our portion was slightly overcooked, but it was neither dry nor tough, and very good.
Tandoori chicken is prepared two ways: a whole breast marinated overnight in a yoghurt, saffron and cashew blend; or in boneless chunks (as in the achari chicken tikka appetizer), flavored with fenugreek, rather than marinated in pickling spices. A mixed grill of chicken tikka, salmon and lamb kebab is a tasty option.
The curries are as varied as mango shrimp curry in a sauce of coconut milk, mango and curry leaves; duck with grape and pomegranate gravy; lamb cooked with tomatoes and onions; and halibut simmered with onions, coriander, coconut and chili.
Unusual curries include lobster chettinad, which combines lobster meat with onions, tomato and coconut; lal maas, venison cooked with tomatoes and onions; and sali boti, a Parsi lamb dish cooked with dried apricots. More familiar traditional dishes such as lamb vindaloo and seafood curry are available as well.
For anyone enjoying hot food, the green-chili chicken is a must. Good-sized pieces of boneless chicken are cooked slowly in a sauce of fresh coriander, other herbs and lots of hot green chilies. It's very good, but when the menu describes the green-chili chicken as really hot, the chef is not kidding. It's nicely tempered by the delicious dal, a traditional lentil side dish here combined with tomatoes, or a cool raita of yoghurt mixed with cucumber, onion, tomato, potato or dates.
Vegetarian dishes include paneer makhni (Indian cottage cheese); a combination of mushrooms and green peas; spinach with or without potatoes; eggplant; and fine sauteed okra. Vegetables are available as a full serving or a side dish.
The kitchen prepares house thalis. A thali is a full meal served in several small cups on a traditional round tray. Bombay Club's thalis are an assortment of seafood with vegetables, dal, rice and bread; a meat thali which combines chicken tikka, lamb, fish, dal, vegetables, lemon rice, naan and raita; or a vegetarian thali.
Breads from the tandoor are not to be missed. Although the restaurant prepares half a dozen types of Indian breads, my favorite is the naan, a flat bread that comes to the table hot and fluffy and perfect for dipping into some of the chef's fragrant sauces.
Desserts are a mix of Western and Indian flavors. The two are combined in a mango-mango dessert — sliced mango and mango sorbet, a cooling finale. The Indian rice pudding, a semi-liquid delight, has plump raisins and bits of slivered almonds.
Bombay Club has an international wine list with many bottles that go well with Indian dishes and a good selection of beer. Dinner on the patio on a warm, humid Washington summer evening is all you need for gentle transport to India.
RESTAURANT: Bombay Club, 815 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/659-3727
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, until 11 p.m. Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday
PRICES: Appetizers $6 to $12; main courses $15 to $24; vegetarian dishes $9 to $12; side dishes $5 to $7; desserts $7 to $8; lunch dishes slightly less
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Metered street parking; valet parking for Sunday brunch
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible
METRO: Farragut North (Red Line) and Farragut West (Orange and Blue lines)