When I was invited to join a small group in the kitchen at Bollywood Theater for a mini-cooking class and chat with Troy MacLarty (founder and owner), I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Step inside with me.
Bollywood Theater, for those out of town or not familiar with this local phenom, is a darling here — lauded by critics, beloved by locals, and a must-try for visitors eager to get a taste of what’s happening here.
It’s such a winning formula that I estimate I’ve been to their restaurants (their original is on Alberta and their second one on Division), about 15 times — perhaps more than any other restaurant here.
I’m not alone — between their two locations, they sometimes serve upwards of a thousand covers a night.
That’s a huge fan base of repeat customers.
In a town with so many good restaurants, the loyalty and excitement still generated by their two places is impressive.
A couple of lucky souls and I were invited to join Troy yesterday at the Division St. location, and the minute I found the group I was offered a cocktail.
Ginger Bourbon and Pomegranate — I was intrigued and then delighted by my choice.
We had a few minutes before we headed into the kitchen so I first checked out the tiny retail space attached to the dining room.
I loved the See and Smell Spice Bar.
Check out just some of the Indian groceries for sale.
Also a few snacks and cookbooks were for sale.
Now with a dozen of us assembled, Troy took us back into the kitchen.
Here they crank out large scale food production; almost eighty percent of the food served at the two Bollywoods is made right here.
It felt so great to be back in a big restaurant kitchen.
I loved my years at Greens and so walking back here felt both familiar and exciting to be surrounded by the bustle of a big kitchen.
Endless butcherblock counters with line cooks prepping. Giant saute pans simmering with fragrant braises. The rat-a-tat-tat of knives clicking on cutting boards. Pots being filled, cauldrons being drained. The aromas of ground spices, fresh herbs and garlic wafting headily in the air.
We were encouraged to look around, and I toured the walk-in freezer, marvelling at all the deliciousness stacked up around me.
Stepping back into the main room, I saw magic was happening all around me.
Homemade paneer being pressed. Enormous bags of vegetables were prepped for cooking.
And little touches that made me smile.
I loved watching the evolution of the Papri crackers in the kitchen.
The whole wheat and nigella seed-laced dough had been made in a giant mixer, and then allowed to rest.
It was then extruded through a machine, much like sheets of fresh pasta.
Before I stepped back in here, I had no idea how much of the food at BT was made from scratch, even little things like these crackers.
It’s an expensive and time-consuming process but one Troy is fully committed to, despite its challenges.
When the crackers were cooked, they looked like this.
Just look at those lovely blisters of crunchy goodness — and those nigella seeds which give it such a striking flavor.
We had the pleasure of trying these crackers with his signature Green Chutney, Tamarind Date Chutney, and perhaps my favorite, Rhubarb Strawberry Achaar (the consistency of which was somewhere between a salsa and a chutney).
Troy talked about his four years at Chez Panisse and how he fell in love with Indian food after Vik’s Chaat and Market (a well-known but casual Indian restaurant, also in Berkeley) catered their company Christmas Party one year.
He recounted how he came to realize that Indian cuisine was not one thing but rather a variety of different regional cuisines; in no time, he became especially enamored with the dosas and street foods of Southern India.
For someone who proclaims to be shy, he’s a natural raconteur — and he held our small group spellbound as he talked of his journey.
He told us how he moved to Portland after talking to Tommy Habetz (then at Ripe, now with a Bunk empire and Pizza Jerk) at an East Coast wedding. Soon after, he started cooking here at Family Supper.
Word carried, and before you knew it, things started brewing.
All around him people started asking him when he was opening up a place of his own.
Backing followed, and before you know it, he signed a lease for the Alberta location–
on the very same day he took his first ever trip to India to do research.
It was so interesting to learn of those early first days and how genuinely surprised he was by their right-out-of-the-gate smash success — and some of things he discovered along the way.
Like the challenges– and expenses — of importing many of these ingredients from India, some of which by air to ensure maximum freshness.
He’s now been to India a total of five times (now taking some of his staff with him as they research very specific dishes) and then brings what they’ve learned back into the kitchen.
He told us that he kept all those menus from his stint at Chez Panisse in a binder and he pulls it out every week. He said that he refers back to them to be reminded of their seasonality, their inventiveness — and find new inspiration for his farm-to-table style of cooking of these street foods.
As a former restaurant line cook myself (and avid fan of Chez Panisse which I visited as often as I could afford as a culinary student) I could completely relate to that.
With all our questions answered, we headed back to our table where we were treated to some wonderful dishes.
Like these Mixed Dal, Fava Bean and Paneer Pakoras (as seen on the bottom left here).
The pakoras were both airy and bewitchingly crispy with bright emerald niblets of tender fava bean and the Rhubarb-Strawberry Achaar was insanely flavorful as a dipping sauce.
No less delicious was the Dahi Papri Chaat.
Here, those little crisped crackers we saw prepped earlier were topped with that Green Chutney and the Tamarind Date Chutney we’d sampled along with cubed Yukon Gold potatoes, onions, chickpeas and yogurt — and a fluffy flurry of the freshest of cilantro.
And then there was the asparagus dish, a seasonal special.
I was thinking about how Troy said that he would look at seasonal menus from CP and then try to imagine how to take an ingredient that’s not indigenous to that area (like asparagus) and put an Indian street food spin on it here.
Damn, they’re good at that.
Behold these beautiful spears, blanched to perfection and then topped with chopped raisins, currants and almonds and swathed in the most delightful, curry-infused sauce.
(I wanted to plant my face in it).
I now understand why Bollywood Theater is so satisfying.
It’s the child of a food/ingredient obsessive who cares deeply about his craft and a dedicated and talented crew who shares his passion and perfectionist ways.
Despite the volume of the production, there are no short cuts.
And only the best of ingredients.
Every single detail — be it their signature Chai, the Kati rolls (which I’m obsessed with) or anything else coming out of this kitchen — has been painstakingly thought out and executed perfectly.
And let’s be honest — when you deliver this level of excellence at food cart prices (and it’s unlike anything else around you), people will love you and keep coming back.
Over and over and over. Like I do.
So don’t go just because Troy cares deeply about his employees (every single one gets a generous health care package including wellness visits and deeply discounted massages) and the kitchen shares the tips from the front of the house, allowing for a more even playing/paying field.
While those facts are both interesting and commendable, they alone wouldn’t be enough reason for repeat visits.
Don’t come in if you can’t wrap your mind around an Indian menu without Butter Chicken, either — it’s not that kind of place.
Go to Bollywood Theater simply because you can be sure it’s going to be just crazy delicious — and quite possibly the most luscious Indian food you’re ever likely to have.
(And life is too damn short not to.)