There are two types of Chelsea restaurants: those that are near Billy’s Bakery and those that aren’t. I have been known to plan entire evenings around Billy’s Bakery: “Well,” I will say, “We can meet at Billy’s Bakery, go find a place to eat and come back for a cupcake.” The biggest supporter of this type of plan is my friend Lisa, who also adores Billy’s Bakery. “I adore Billy’s Bakery,” she’ll frequently say.
On the night, more than a week ago, that I met Lauren for dinner at Cookshop (a Chelsea restaurant that is sort of near Billy’s Bakery, but not wildly close) I found myself walking across the street from Billy’s Bakery and in the process discovering not one but TWO interesting looking restaurants. One was entirely vegan the other was entirely Indian. “I will put these in my mental catalogue,” I told myself, “so that when Lisa and I have plans we can come to one of these two places and then do what smart, food-loving Chelsea residents have been doing for centuries: nosh at Billy’s Bakery.”
And so it was that on Saturday night, Lisa and I met outside Billy’s Bakery (her roommate and our dear friend Annette, who had walked with her, went inside to buy cupcakes to bring to a party) and made our way across the street to examine these two new restaurant finds. The first, the vegan place, looked very nice but the menu was too pricey. I take exception to a vegan menu where the entrees all cost more than $15. At the end of the day, these are just vegetables and whatever transformation you make to them, whatever pairing you give to them cannot–with few exceptions–justify such a hefty pricetag. (I think Angelika Kitchen and GoBo: Food for the Five Senses merit their menu prices, but even their menus have cheaper options.)
Next door, then, was the Indian Place: Bombay Talkie. It looked very cool inside, very hip and yet inviting. There was one table in the window sandwiched between two serious looking couples. “If we get that table,” I told Lisa, “Those people are going to hate us because we talk so loud. I hope we get a booth.” There were booths towards the back. “I don’t think we’re getting a booth,” said Lisa. “The booths look like they’re for parties of 3 and 4.”
We decided to venture in anyway and, once inside, the host–a lithe, muscled gay man (this is Chelsea, after all)–asked us if we had a reservation. When we said “no,” he told us we could sit at the tall communal table. “That’s ok,” I said which he took as a yes before I could finish, “we’ll go somewhere else.” Lisa heard me say the last part and laughed but his selective ears led us to the tall communal table where Lisa was hefted high above the ground. “Enjoy your meal,” he said.
Here is the view from my chair:
As you can see, the communal table was long and unpopulated. The bar, we both thought, was beautiful: I loved how the drinks were projected in pink on the wall. The waitress, also in pink and also projected on the wall (just kidding) she’s in the aisle, was very sweet and very friendly. True, she was also very absent but she had a lot of tables to handle and it can be said of our meal that the busboys kept our water glasses full and took our plates away quite attentively.
Lisa and I strategized over the menu. Unlike most Indian restaurants, the entree selection was pretty unfriendly to vegetarians. “You stupid vegetarian,” said the menu, “you think you can reject the meat? You cannot reject the meat. You are a foolish woman.” (This is the joke. The menu was not a hostile menu.)
Ultimately, we decided to share one street bite, four vegetable sides, Naan and rice. Here is our first street bite: Padpi Chat–Beggar’s Purse. “Crispy flour purses stuffed with potatoes and chickpeas with a tamarind and yogurt sauce.”
I have to tell you, these appetizers had me worried over our meal. They were finely flavored but they seemed so do-it-yourself Indian–I could imagine them opening prepackaged flour purses, spooning in potatoes and chickpeas and drizzling over pre-bought yogurt and then sprinkling those crunchies over the top–and it left me a little uninspired. They tasted like something my college friends might make for a party. Perfectly edible but not quite something you’d want to order at a restaurant.
But all of my fears were waylaid when the rest of the food arrived. Clockwise from top left: Baigan Bharta (tandoori smoked eggplant with ginger coriander, cumin and chilies), Pulao (spiced basmati rice with caramelized onions), Palaak Paneer (creamed spinach with homemade cheese) and Aloo Gobi (potatoes, cauliflower, cumin and chilies.)
And here you see Chole Peshawari (spicy garbanzo beans in a ginger garlic paste, green chiles and coriander), plus Naan:
All of this food was really tasty and really good. I liked the presentation (very Ikea) and I liked the small portions: it allowed us to sample a bunch of different things as opposed to only two entrees. It was, however, probably a little too much food for the two of us: our waitress could have steered us down a notch. But we did pretty well, we made a dent in each dish—my favorite, the Palaak Paneer, wasn’t that much different from the Palaak Paneer I’ve had at other (and cheaper) Indian places, but it still hit the spot.
In fact, if this place were not across the street from Billy’s Bakery I might protest its prices and its lack of better seating. But when our meal was over, we found ourselves across the street savoring Banana Cake and Billy’s Famous Icebox Cake. What was it we had for dinner again? I’m not sure we remembered. Or that we cared.
Bombay Talkie. 189 9th Ave Btwn. 21st and 22nd St. New York, NY 10011. (212) 242-1900.