Bombay Peacock Grill,

10005 Old Columbia Road,

Columbia, (410) 381-7111.

Open every day for lunch and dinner.

AE, MC, V. No smoking area: yes.

Wheelchair accessible: yes.

It seems to be a pattern, and a welcome one. We geintroduced to a foreign cuisine by inexpensive places that don't reveal much of the range of the cuisine involved, but the food is plentiful and cheap. Once we get hooked, upscale restaurants open up with more interesting and extensive menus and more graceful settings.

The latest example is the Bombay Peacock Grill in Columbia, a branch of the successful (and reasonably upscale) Bombay Grill in downtown Baltimore. The new restaurant is dressier than the original -- though some customers figure they can wear T-shirts and jeans if the food is Indian, even if the waiters are in tuxedos.

Located in one of those anonymous, modern office buildings, the Bombay Peacock has created a warm, fairly luxurious dining room in the impersonal space. The view from the windows is lovely; the woods are lushly green this time of year. Inside, the lighting is soft and the colors muted (except for the mauve leatherette banquettes, a somewhat jarring note). The curtains are Indian print cotton, but otherwise you wouldn't immediately recognize this as an Indian restaurant. The Bombay Peacock's snowy white linens could grace the tables of the fanciest French restaurant in town; the tables are set with fresh flowers and handsome black show plates.

At lunchtime the Bombay Peacock has an elaborate buffet for $7.95, with 15 items on it. (The Bombay Grill in town is also known for its lunch buffet.) But it's worth getting away from the all-you-can-eat mentality to see the restaurant's handsome presentation of individual dishes. Mussels masala ($3.95), for instance, are arranged out of the shell on a small plate with thin slices of lemon and tomato. There are only four mussels, but they're an excellent first course, sparking the appetite without filling you up. The mollusks are grit free and tender, and stand up well to the flavors of garlic, chilies and ginger.

For the more faint of heart, Bombay Peacock has a smooth, creamy seafood soup ($2.95), with bits of crab, scallops and shrimp. There's just an undertone of heat, enough to prepare you for what's to come but not to numb unaccustomed palates.

A less successful first course is the triveni kabob ($3.25), the minced crab, lobster and shrimp dominated by unidentifiable (at jTC least by me) herbs, cooked to dryness in a tandoor oven and served at room temperature.

Bombay Peacock also has more usual starters, like the fat vegetable samosa ($1.50), pastry filled with spiced potatoes and peas and deep-fried almost grease free. Try them with a lively coriander chutney.

The choices of main courses range from crab to mutton, with much in between. Crab malabar ($12.95) is a pretty dish, with its garnish of peas, fresh ginger slivers and sprigs of cilantro, but it looks better than it tastes. The crab meat's spicing overwhelms its delicate flavor. Not bad -- just not the best way to treat Maryland's favorite seafood.

Everything else we had was above average, though, and one dish soared. This was a modest-sounding vegetarian korma ($6.95), a mixture of vegetables in an addictively good, creamy ,, sauce with just a hint of spices, a few raisins and chopped cashews. Vegetarians will fare very well at the Bombay Peacock Grill; the selection of non-meat dishes is extensive.

Palates craving fire should try murgh tikka masala ($9.95). The boneless chicken meat is cooked first in the tandoor, so that it's smoky but not dry, then simmered in a full-bodied sauce -- spicy-hot, yes, but not to the point where you can't taste the complexity of flavors.

There are old favorites here, like lamb saag ($9.95). The tender lamb chunks are cooked in fresh spinach, then spiced with verve. Raita ($1.75), a seasoned homemade yogurt, is a pleasant fire extinguisher, sharing that duty with the prettily garnished rice pilaf that comes with dinners.

Don't overlook the breads, a necessity for dipping in the various sauces. Naan ($1) -- a flat bread -- is particularly good here, charcoal-grilled and brushed with oil.

I personally never save room for dessert at Indian restaurants. They're not to my taste, and there's too much else good to eat. But if you must have a sweet at the end of the meal, Bombay Peacock has the usuals -- the rice pudding that tastes overly sweet and underflavored to American palates, the balls made from skim milk powder soaked in rose water and sugar syrup, and so on and so on. The carrot cake was a new one on me: pureed carrots sweetened to a fare-thee-well and sprinkled with grated pistachio nuts. I'll end my meal with the good Darjeeling tea flavored with cardamom and cinnamon.

+ Next: Wayne's Bar-B-Que

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