Brunswick has two Indian restaurants, which many residents tend to refer to as either “the one on the left-hand side of the street” or “the one on the right.” Given that traffic flows both ways on Maine Street, this is not a particularly helpful directive and may lead to a greater philosophical discussion about where Brunswick begins and ends. I just wanted to know which one was worth my time. Or at least more worth my time. But it proved challenging to identify the better of the two; for each person I found who said one was clearly better than the other, there was someone equally insistent that other was the only one I should patronize.
I tried both Bombay-Mahal and Shere Punjab four years ago, when I first moved back to Brunswick, and had such mild responses to each that if I had a preference, I promptly forgot it. Maybe I’d be like the person who told me, when I asked which was better, that he just went to whichever one had fewer people in it at the moment he felt the urge to eat Indian (he’s a highly practical misanthrope). But as the years have passed, I’ve continued to hear of fierce loyalties to one or the other, to the point where the reason for the preference became more intriguing than the prospect of the meal.
Last week I biked down to Bombay-Mahal with a friend, hoping for two things. First, a cheap lunch buffet. Second, to establish a baseline opinion so that I could finally determine which is better.
We were immediately out of luck, since the lunch buffet is only on Saturday and Sunday. But Bombay-Mahal does offer a decent selection of “cheap” lunch dishes on a limited menu, and we decided to try a range and take the leftovers home with us. We ordered three main dishes, the Lamb Curry and Chicken Labadar (marinated in yogurt and cooked in the tandoor), which were both $7.95, and the Dal Makhani (lentils cooked in spices, sautéed with butter, onions and tomatoes), which was $7.50. I also ordered a few things off the regular menu, including a side of mango chutney ($2.50 but a must for me) and pappadam (ditto) and Keema Samosa ($4.50), a turnover that includes ground lamb.
The pappadam arrived promptly, four wafers stacked in a basket. Some people eat Indian as an excuse to eat nan (or naan, depending on the region), but for me, it’s all about the pappadam. Thinner than a wafer – is that possible? – crisp and spicy, they set the tone for me; in my experience, only with Indian food do you get anything remotely like this. They were new to my companion, who grew up in such a health-focused family that his idea of a cracker remains, to this day, some form of sad, virtuous rye crispbread. He embraced the pappadams wholeheartedly, and between the two of us, they were gone in about a heartbeat.
Which gives us time to check out our surroundings. Bombay-Mahal is in the Tondreau block, one of Brunswick’s biggest buildings, which is divided up into many storefronts (including the popular Enoteca Athena). The room is fairly wide and deep, and while the decorations of sari material and quilted Indian fabrics wrapped around ceiling tiles are sweet attempts to add ambience, Bombay-Mahal still has that feeling of a place that was perhaps intended to be a retail store, not a restaurant.
Yelpers say a few negative things about the service at both restaurants, but our waiter at lunch was helpful, friendly and efficient. We had no problem getting in and out in an hour. We wolfed down our next course, the Keema Samosa, which were fine (although next time, I’d go for the vegetarian option instead); the lamb had that gamey quality I don’t really like. I’d also skip the lamb curry because the meat was tough and not particularly flavorful (although the sauce was good). The rice, dotted with tiny bits of unrecognizable but pleasing vegetables, was light and perfectly cooked. My date gave the dal the big thumbs up – I thought it satisfying texturally but a little bland – while I liked the Chicken Lababdar the best. The level of spice (medium) was just right, and the whole dish was tangy and warming, just right for a day that felt like the beginning of fall. There is something about the cosiness of bowls full of orange, yellow and amber-hued food that makes it seem not so terrible to be saying goodbye to summer. And I resolved that sometime before the snow flies, I’ll hit that other Indian restaurant in Brunswick and give it another chance as well. The one on the left. Or is it the right?
WHERE: 99 Maine St., Brunswick 04011; 207-729-5260; www.bombaymahalbrunswick.com
WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 3 to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week. Buffet Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
OUTDOOR SEATING: In fine weather, yes.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE? Yes.