BEFORE IT OPENED, I walked past Bollywood Theater many times. The dark, curio-filled windows seemed to be those of an expensive and exotic boutique in which a pedestrian might, late one evening, accidentally buy a Mogwai. NE Alberta has many such mysterious storefronts, and I paid it no heed.
Soon the lights came on, the windows rolled up, and the tongues began to wag. There was a new Indian restaurant in our midst and, Indian food being a celebrated local weak spot, it welcomed cautious scrutiny. Were there long steam tables of homogeneous, butter-dissolved spinach? Was there but Kingfisher beer and weak tea to wash the ghee from our lips? And what of the burst samosas, softening nervously under hot Klieg lights? Where would we find them—near the mango soft-serve?
They were nowhere. Instead, gleaming stainless-steel plates bore beautiful and vibrant sharing dishes—alive with color and freshness—to artfully mismatched tables in an energetic, pop-stylized dining room. Crunchy, julienned okra—fried golden and served with a sour, tangy cucumber-yogurt raita—was there to begin meals, and complex, hoppy IPAs were poured alongside Pimm's Cups and crisp gin and tonics. Indian food had become decidedly young and sexy again.
Perhaps the best way to start experiencing the food at Bollywood Theater are the individual Thali meals ($11-13). These feature a generous serving of spicy egg masala, chicken curry, or large Goan-style shrimp, along with lentils, vegetable stew, saffron rice, refreshing raita, green chutney, a simple salad of baby spinach and onion, and a hot, fresh paratha flatbread griddled in butter. These plates are ample meals for one, and for their variety remain interesting—not to mention healthful—throughout. Nearly as filling are the Kati rolls, ghee-griddled paratha wraps ($6.50) stuffed with intensely flavorful grilled meats (or paneer cheese), pickled onion, greens, and chutney. Before the fillings are added to these burrito analogs, the hot bread is set atop a beaten egg on the cooktop and the two fuse together, lining the inside with a tender and moisture-resistant barrier that adds to the sturdy richness of the dish. The beef roll is the standout, with juicy, smoky meat in plentiful supply.
The flagship entrée is clearly the pork vindaloo ($8.50)—ample chunks of braised meat in a strong, addicting, slightly sweet vinegar, garlic, and chili sauce. Like an Indian cousin of chili verde, the meat is fully flavored, succulent, and fork tender. It is plenty for one as a solo dish with the saffron rice or rolls, but it makes an excellent sharing dish as part of a meal for two. It is far more interesting than the chicken curry, which is a safe play for less-adventurous palates.
Vegetarians can, of course, enjoy nearly the entire menu. Aloo tikki, a pan-fried potato patty with a chickpea stew called cholle is at $5 easily a satisfying entrée for one. Vada pav ($3), the "poor man's burger," is a little deep-fried potato patty served on a slider-size fresh bun, and makes a great starter. There are 11 delicious vegetarian sides, most of which are $2.
A satisfying meal for two here might consist of four dishes: the fat, tender house-made potato samosas with tomato-raisin chutney (two for $6), extraordinarily flavorful grilled asparagus with paneer, coconut curry, and spiced cashews ($7.50), the pork vindaloo, and the fried okra ($5.50). Add a few starchy $2 sides (rice, cholle, paratha, dal, and papadums) to bring variety, volume, and interest to the table cheaply.
Gastronomists may also find Bollywood Theater interesting for the comparisons that are being drawn between it and another innovative local restaurateur: Pok Pok's Andy Ricker. The concept of refining street fare and elevating it to a restaurant setting has worked well for both, as this city of educated and discerning diners is persistently hungry for affordable and stimulating new foods. Bollywood chef Troy MacLarty—a talented and highly respected local jack-of-all-kitchens—has until now cooked under the auspices of others: Chez Panisse, Lovely Hula Hands, Simpatica, Ned Ludd, Laurelhurst Market, Grain and Gristle. Now he has boldly hung his own shingle and cleverly put a distinctive stamp on an unfulfilled ethnic niche. It will not be long before his lively, refined little masterpieces are considered destination-worthy.
Is it "authentic"? It hardly seems to matter, though MacLarty traveled across India to cherry-pick and perfect dishes he thought would please an American audience. With Bollywood Theater, he offers a snapshot of the idealized chaos and sensory excitement of a moment in an India most of us will never see. We are lucky to have it, and the intriguing pleasures within.
Child friendly, and comfortable. Counter service keeps it affordable, and plentiful tables make an ideal setting for a few rounds as well as a meal.