On a list that includes chicken tikka, alu gobi, and halibut masala, the tandoori kangaroo is definitely an eye-stopper. The last time I saw marsupial on a menu was in Australia, where some tout the meat as a healthy alternative protein. In fact, the whole tandoori section at Salam Bombay prompts a double take. Musk ox, elk, wild boar”¦ This is uncharted territory for most restaurants in Vancouver.
While the menu makes Salam Bombay stand out, the restaurant's décor clearly aims to fit in with that of its tony neighbours. Perched above Hermí¨s overlooking the intersection of Burrard and Alberni streets, the room's wraparound windows flood it with light, and evenings see the lights tastefully dimmed. White linen and wineglasses grace the tables, and a pair of cheery tangerine sofas near the bar encourage lingering.
Our server, who is extraordinarily polite and otherwise knowledgeable about the menu, doesn't know where the game originates. "It's from all over," she says with a sweeping gesture, although she can tell us that the kangaroo is imported from Australia. In a phone interview later, restaurant partner Jose Madappilly says that the elk is from B.C., the wild boar is from Alberta, and the musk ox is from Manitoba. Why all the game? "I want to be different," he says. "I don't want to photocopy other restaurants."
Menu items draw influences from all over India, but there's a definite southern slant. Madappilly grew up in the state of Kerala, from which chef Shijo Keenancheril also hails. He recruited the chef to cook in Vancouver after enjoying his food at the posh Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin.
According to Madappilly, people in southern India have traditionally cooked with wild boar and venison. But seafood, in particular, distinguishes the region's dishes, as the coastal states of Kerala and Goa naturally draw on the ocean. Samosas stuffed with crab or king mackerel are common; Salam Bombay offers a West Coast version filled with fresh, wild sockeye salmon.
We're expecting chunks of fish in the samosas, but when they arrive, the filling has the crumbly texture of canned salmon. Unlike most samosas, which are pyramid-shaped, doughy creations, these triangles are crafted from phyllo and resemble Greek spanakopita. They're seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves instead of the standard cumin and ginger, and are a pleasant though slightly greasy change.
Marinated for upwards of 12 hours in yogurt with ginger, garlic, green chilies, coriander, and cumin, the tandoori kangaroo is mild, not gamey. It's cooked in a charcoal-fired tandoori oven and is surprisingly velvety in texture.
Our main courses are individually plated with pulao rice, veggies, and naan, rather than family-style. The lamb shank with spinach curry is fall-off-the-bone tender, but the curry is unremarkable. The wild boar and cassava country curry, however, is delicious. Again, the chunks of meat are pleasingly tender and not at all gamey, and the mace, red chilies, turmeric, cardamom, and bay leaf give the dish a deep, rich flavour. (Keenancheril grinds all his spices fresh.) The cassava, however, is so hard it almost goes flying when I cut it, and the accompanying potato curry is not only ho-hum but greasy.
We can't resist dessert when our server tells us that "the chef takes great pride in his kulfi." He should—the ice cream-like sweet is fantastic. Made from pistachios, milk, and sugar that have been churned for hours, it's so creamy it's almost caramelly.
Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Salam Bombay, and welcome more varied Indian cuisine in Vancouver. (The vegetarian Saravanaa Bhavan joined Vancouver's dosa joints this year, increasing the number of southern-influenced eateries in this city.) However, Salam Bombay, which opened in July, is trying to be something it's not—a fine-dining restaurant.
Aside from the décor, the restaurant's wine list underscores its high-end aspirations. Many bottles cost $200 and up, and if you fancy a $2,100 Bordeaux, just say the word. Granted, you can order a $10 glass of house red, but the luxurious options seem out of place. Menu items are pricier than at most Indian restaurants (tandoori appetizers average $12; entrées are $18 to $28), but that could be justified if the restaurant delivered an elevated experience. The problem? The presentation and plating just don't equal those of restaurants in the same price bracket. For example, our dishes were accented with amateur-looking vegetable garnishes such as roughly carved cucumber cups and radish flowers. The restaurant's china, which is embossed with its signature red horse and carriage, looks more old-school than elegant.
Salam Bombay needs to be more refined in order to justify charging $18 for dal, which is akin to charging $25 for a hamburger. Tourists and power lunchers may not mind, but others will balk. Although the curious may come in for kangaroo, it's the whole package that will keep the joint jumping.