Chef Profile: Bombay Express
Mandy chats with owner Rama Samineni.
by Mandy Jeppsen
Great Indian food requires a knowledgeable chef-one intimately familiar with blending curries, spices, chutneys, flours and sauces. The best Indian chefs grew up in the region and have discriminating taste buds, explains Rama Samineni, owner of Bombay Express. He tells me this as he considers deleting "Express" in the name, having received rave reviews on his cuisine, and a bit of criticism about Bombay's 'relaxed' service.
"I am a programmer by trade," he explains. "I've worked for IBM for 170K a year…now I own two companies in addition to the restaurant." Samineni says the restaurant business is a whole new world for him. He brought cooks from India to work at the restaurant, figuring that the taste of the food was most important, but he had no idea how much service mattered. "I thought, if you make great food, they will come," he said. "Now I know that's not true."
He now trains his serving staff to be more prompt and efficient- he wants to maintain a friendly dining atmosphere. And, many of his regulars return time and again because his food is simply outstanding.
As we chat, Samineni gets up to make me a fresh cup of Indian coffee, and what looks like a giant Indian burrito- masala dosa, an Indian crepe made from lentil and rice flour stuffed with potatoes, onions, peas, lima beans and spices. Growing up, Samineni never washed his own dinner plate, let alone prepare his own food. "In India, the women work in the kitchen," he explained. "My family was very wealthy, and I never did that kind of thing." Samineni says he left India because he didn't like the corruption. He is fast to add that India is full of good people, but he says he prefers life in good 'ole SLC.
A gifted programmer, he worked in Texas, California and New York before relocating to Utah. "When I worked for IBM in eastern Texas, my boss was a Mormon. He saw me drinking every night, and asked me what I was doing. Then we went to a conference together, and I thought I would die. I was very ill. My appendix burst from alcohol poisoning." That was a turning point for Samineni who converted to Mormonism and moved to Salt Lake. He now owns two tech companies, PBS System and High Tech Frontier, both of which he runs from an small office located inside the restaurant. He opened Bombay Express two years ago because he wanted a business in which his family could participate. Now, he simply enjoys the work. "When I work in an office, my blood pressure is high; it is very stressful. When I come here, I feel relaxed."
Though the "Express" in the restaurant's name may seem a bit misleading since it is a sit-down restaurant, there is a daily buffet from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. with 24 dishes to sample. That may sound like a wide variety of food, but it's nothing compared to Bombay's 174-item menu. Samineni explains that he wanted to represent cuisine from several Indian regions, with an emphasis on southern since he hails from Hyderabad. Everything is homemade, including breads, cheeses, soups and desserts. Meats are halal- prepared in accordance with Muslim practices.
It's hard to pick favorites; with each visit, there seems to be something new and wonderful to try. But, if I had to pin down a few, I'd suggest starting with dhal soup followed by papdi chat (pastry crisps topped cooked vegetables and served with a sweet chutney and yogurt). Then move on to a shrimp entree (shrimp kurma is nice) or a lamb specialty, and round it off with a vegetable curry, paneer tikka masala (cheese cubes with vegetables and a garlic sauce), or perhaps, the chicken 65 (boneless marinated chicken cooked in yogurt, spices and curry leaves). Don't forget to sop up sauces and juices with an order of the fabulous garlic naan. And, for dessert, try a Madras coffee with homemade ice cream or the gulab jamun (pastry balls soaked in saffron syrup).
If you're not in a hurry, Bombay Express is a friendly, casual place to try some new Indian dishes. And, if you are reading a lot into "Express," come for the buffet, and leave Samineni's newly trained waitstaff a big tip.