Indian food gets an unfair rap. One of the most diverse cuisines of the world, its ancient roots are centered around dozens of native herbs and spices layered into an irresistible perfume that flavors each dish. A simple vegan daal can be as transcendent as a complicated curry when prepared properly. Problem is, most of us haven’t had it prepared with the kind of finesse it deserves. Until now.
Bollywood Restaurant & Clay Oven, which opened in late October, has an innovative menu that goes far beyond tired tikka masala and mushy naan. Instead, it’s a culinary journey across time and space that brings regional Indian classics with spices imported from Executive Chef Niven Patel’s hometown of Gujat together with the best ingredients Sonoma County has to offer. Call it farm-to-table Indian.
Patel, who is in his mid-30s, is actually from south Florida where he runs one of Miami’s most lauded restaurants, Ghee Indian Kitchen, and is in the process of opening another restaurant. He’s been praised by the New York Times as well as the James Beard Foundation for his inspired take on Indian cuisine as well as the ingredients he grows at his homestead just north of Miami.
Local restaurateur Sonu Chandi and his family’s Chandi Hospitality Group contracted with Patel to bring his knowledge to Sonoma County and open Bollywood. Patel says he fell in love with the farms and producers of Sonoma County, creating a menu that takes advantage of unique ingredients grown locally. During his time in Sonoma County Patel brought two of his staff to relocate permanently and run the restaurant.
Housed in the former County Bench, Bollywood is an ode to the Chandi family history as well. The Indian immigrants have dabbled with a secret Indian menu at Bibi’s Burger Bar (now transformed into Mercato Pasta and Produce, but that’s another story) in downtown Santa Rosa. In fact, Chandi patriarch Gurcharan Singh Chandi spent nearly two decades as the owner of an Indian restaurant in Walnut Creek and in 2014 planned to open a restaurant called Monsoon in downtown Santa Rosa. The restaurant never panned out, but the Chandi’s street food favorites at Bibi’s were a huge hit. Bollywood brings to fruition the kind of restaurant that many have hoped the Chandis would eventually open.
The Miami menus and Santa Rosa menus are similar in many ways — tried and true dishes that have been show-stoppers. The difference is that Bollywood uses purveyors like FEED Sonoma to bring unique local produce to our menu.
It would be remiss not to mention the equally impressive Indian-inspired cocktails from mixologists Scott Beattie and Andrea Mota. Rather than overwhelming, the duo have created a handful of well-balanced drinks that are as beautiful and flavorful as Nevin’s dishes. They’ll be adding more in the coming months, but favorites include the refreshing Bardoli Buck ($12) with vodka, raw turmeric, ginger, lime, soda, bitters and golden beets topped with marigold; the Kerala Margarita ($12) that’s a riff on a traditional margarita with tequila, smoky mezcal, lime, agave, hibiscus, lotus root and chile threads or my favorite, the Gujarati Swizzle ($12) that’s a dangerously quaffable mix of gin, Buddah’s hand, elderflower, lemon, coconut milk, lemon verbena, lime, citrus leaf and soda. Several of the drinks are almost too pretty to drink. Almost.
Overall: Out of the gate, the restaurant is breathtaking in its well-matured menu and spot-on flavors. There’s not a dish we’ve had that wasn’t spectacular.
Indian Food Toe-Dippers
Crispy Cauliflower, $12: Caramelized bites of cauliflower in a sweet, sticky sauce mixed with fried paneer and pickled shiitakes. Addictive. Gluten-free, vegetarian.
Turmeric Marinated Salmon, $19: Perfectly cooked salmon with a crisp exterior and flakey inside with a puddle of coconut cream sauce. If you love salmon but aren’t sure about Indian food, start here.
Chicken Tikka Masala, $15: If you know one Indian dish, it’s this creamy tomato and masala-spiced entree. If you’re toe-dipping into Indian food, this is how to ease in. Plus, it’s tikka. How can you possibly go wrong.
Naan: Tandoori are traditional Indian clay ovens, and without one, naan just isn’t the crisp, fluffy flatbread that’s so perfect for mopping up whatever’s left on your plate. We like it with ghee and garlic, but if you’re brave you can try the ghost pepper cheddar.
Basmati Rice ($4): Usually an afterthought, this perfumed basmati is mixed with cumin and ghee. Good enough to eat on its own, you’ll be spoiled to eat anything else.
Happy Hour: Downtowners have already discovered the 4-to-6 p.m. happy hour Tuesday through Saturday featuring some of the most popular small bites and cocktails.
Pani Puri, $9: Light-as-air dough puffs are filled with a mix of sprouted moong beans and beets and “green juice” — made with a tart combination of mint, cilantro and other herbs. They’re a popular street food eaten in a single bite unless you want to wear it on your shirt. (Vegan)
Short Rib Uttapam, $11: A thick, savory pancake with vegetables and meaty short ribs cooked into the batter. Served with a coconut yogurt chutney, it’s a rich and filling appetizer. A side of daal — a lentil soup that’s usually a watery disappointment elsewhere — is full of diced vegetables and sings with spices and umami.
Tuna Bhel, $13: Another street snack of fried noodle crispies called “sev,” avocado, raw tuna and chutney, this upscale version explodes with texture and flavor — a true hallmark of Indian food — sweet, sour, salty, crispy, chewy. As beautiful to look at as to eat.
Saag Paneer, $15: You will never think of spinach the same way ever again. Bathed in cream, turmeric and fenugreek with bites of cubed paneer, this paneer is dairy divine.
With diverse religious beliefs, many parts of the population eschew beef, pork and even dairy, so vegetable-based dishes are flavorful and richly spiced. It’s worth seeking them out, because they’re far more than side dishes.
Rock Shrimp Aloo Tikki, $12: Aloo Tikki can best be described as an Indian potato croquette. Add local rock shrimp to the fried patty, and you’ve got the basis for this seafood-based dish. Bathed in yogurt riata, tamarind and cilantro chutney with a scattering of pomagranate and sev. I have dreams about this beauty.
Chutneys and Pickles, $2: Half the fun of Indian food are the chutneys and sauces. Make sure to try several, because they’ll add a whole other note to whatever you’re eating — sweet mango, sour cucumber yogurt raita or the puckeringly tart tamarind.
Veggies: Charred Corn, $8, or Wild Mushrooms, $9: Also made in the clay oven, you’ll get some serious char and extra flavor on these locally sourced veggies that make them extra worth trying.
Just Not Having It: The menu includes several dishes for the party-pooper you’re obligated to bring along. Creekstone Farms Ribeye ($18) with yukon potatoes as well as a smoked lamb shank with chickpeas and herbs ($21). Vegetable pakora ($8) are pretty straightforward little vegetable fritters if you keep away from the chutney.
Bollywood Bar & Clay Oven, 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, bollywoodbar.net. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 4 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.