Chef Troy MacLarty may have walked the streets of Kolkata to research the food for his new Indian bistro Bollywood Theater, but in feeling his restaurant is pure Portland: upscale street food amid mismatched tables, variegated artisanal knickknackery and deeply ironized shrines to foreign film.
MacLarty's menu is full of India's "poor man's burgers" and mill-worker favorites, chutnied-beef kati rolls, Goan-Portuguese bastard foods made with buttered rolls—the food of streetside carts and home skillets. The kati rolls ($6.50) are a Mughlai hybrid food—hence the beef option—essentially kebab wrapped in Indian flat bread. They're also among the unmitigated successes on the menu, with achingly tender beef accented by the bright tones of green chutney and pickled onion.
The egg masala ($7) features hard-boiled eggs in a tangy, mildly spiced tomato curry that recalls a salsa brava. It's a delicious surprise, as was the beautifully balanced sambar (vegetable, tamarind and pigeon-pea stew, $2). The lightly curried Goan-style shrimp ($9) was a bit overcooked but pleasantly spiced; again, it seemed to carry traces of influence from the Iberian peninsula, especially in its lightness and mildness.
Most of the food at Bollywood Theater is gentle in its spicing. There are no South Indian gut punches and chili bombs here. The pav bhaji ($5.50), a potato-vegetable stew served on dinner rolls, wouldn't offend the palate of a provincial uplands Englishman, nor would the vada pav ($3), a savory potato-chickpea dumpling served as a sandwich with a mild chutney sauce.
What is served here is comfort food in every sense: carb-laden and savory, not overly challenging but wonderfully satisfying. With the exception of one damning flaw: The paratha ($2) is made with far too much salt to serve as a sop for most of the dishes. Though it is perfect as part of the kati, it really disrupts the raitas and dals and curries. In its current salty-sweet form, it resembles shortening-based pie crust, and is hopefully from a recipe still under development.
Bollywood also follows Portland's current yen for upfront counter payment and table service in its newest casual-chic restaurants—the ¿Por Que No? model, if you will. Each new diner is greeted with the fateful question, "Have you ever eaten here before?" that always precedes a description of how one may best serve oneself. The dining model works beautifully—swifter than others, really—until you realize you want another cocktail, glass of wine or mango lassi ($3), at which point you find yourself standing back in line, swiping your credit card at the counter yet again. The bar is open, but the tabs are closed, which is too bad, because among the well-made Pimm's Cup ($7), Plymouth gin and tonic ($7) and Paanch ($8, made here with rum instead of arak) cocktails, you'll probably be wanting a second drink.
- Order this: Beef kati roll and pav bhaji appetizers, egg masala Thali meal ($11, comes with sambar, dal, raita, saffron rice, chutney), refreshing Pimmâs Cup.
- Best deal: The vada pav is $3, and filling. Add a sambar side for $2.
- Iâll pass: That salty, salty paratha.
EAT: Bollywood Theater, 2039 NE Alberta St., 971-200-4711, bollywoodtheaterpdx.com. 11 am-10 pm daily. $-$$.