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Bollywood Bar & Clay Oven

Where: 535 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 4 to 10:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4 to 11:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat.

Contact: 707-236-8680, bollywoodbar.net

Cuisine: Indian

Price: Moderate, entrées $13-$21

Corkage: $20

Stars: ★★★

Summary: A James Beard Award-nominated chef puts a modern spin on spectacular Indian cuisine.

As technology gets more and more magical every day, here is my wish: scratch and sniff photos. Wouldn’t that be cool, if we could touch-screen our computers, tablets and phones, and savor the aroma of delectable foods?

It would be fun all around, and a virtual blessing for the new Bollywood Bar & Clay Oven in Santa Rosa. Because this food is brilliant, rich with sauces and fragrant with spices. But it doesn’t generally translate well to photos.

Bollywood’s chicken tikka masala, for example, is delicious in its creamy sauce kissed with slightly sweet, nutty-flavored fenugreek, wood-fire roasted peppers and earthy tomato ($15). But that same rust-orange sauce makes the dish look like glop in its metal serving bowl.

Such is the fate of many Indian dishes, from curries to saag paneer to vindaloo. But dig in, because good Indian food is one of the best cuisines on the planet, and under the care of Bollywood chefs de cuisine, Alex Sarria and Will Fernandez, it’s even better.

Bollywood is the work of Indian chef Niven Patel, who also owns the acclaimed Ghee Indian Kitchen in Miami, and he transferred Sarria and Fernandez to Sonoma County to do the daily cooking.

Patel, it must be noted, is a 2018 James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef in the South, and here, like at Ghee, he showcases flavors from his native Indian state of Gujarat.

Recipes are bolstered with Sonoma County ingredients, and accents inspired by the Punjab region of India. Why such a focus? Because Bollywood is owned by The Chandi Hospitality Group, a family that owns several downtown Santa Rosa restaurants and has its own roots in Punjab.

Local diners were eagerly anticipating Bollywood for months before it opened in the former County Bench space on Fourth Street, and every time I visit, the place is packed (and loud). On a recent venture, I waited in line at the door behind a gaggle of sari-dressed women, and was happy I’d remembered to make a reservation.

If you’d been to County Bench, you’ll recall the modern interior, graced by blown glass bubble pendant lights above the polished wood bar that spans nearly the length of the room.

The thoughtful, architecturally gracious main floor nearly glows, with its underlit bar shelves of backlit bottles soaring up to the second story ceiling, elegant curved lime green booths, and wood tables that are often pushed together to host large groups.

But now, the brick walls are adorned with massive murals of high style folks dressed in traditional Indian garb, and there’s a spectacular, colorful wall of jarred Gujarat spices and spools of silk thread.

You’ll also want to admire the gleaming wine dispenser that complements the list of California and European sips.

Take note of the hearth and clay ovens, too, which create must-orders like nightly seafood specials, or sweet corn that’s charred on the cob then mounded in lots of melty smoked paneer and cilantro aioli ($8).

But first, get a cocktail. Created by cocktail royalty Scott Beattie and Andrea Mota, they’re layered, lovely, and potent, in blends like a Punjabi Punch of pisco, pineapple gum, lemon, lime, partner vermouth, bitters, green coriander and rambutan garnish that’s sliced to show off the tropical fruit’s spiky orange mohawk rind ($12).

Bollywood Bar & Clay Oven

Where: 535 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 4 to 10:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4 to 11:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat.

Contact: 707-236-8680, bollywoodbar.net

Cuisine: Indian

Price: Moderate, entrées $13-$21

Corkage: $20

Stars: ★★★

Summary: A James Beard Award-nominated chef puts a modern spin on spectacular Indian cuisine.

Miami-ites will recognize many of the dishes, here, borrowed from Ghee. Menu descriptions are brief and often exotic (channa masala / assam tea + avocado) and the servers I’ve had need more training on how to describe what dishes actually entail, but know this: pretty much anything you get will be a tapestry of flavor, based on a familiar dish but then spun with something expected.

There’s Ghee’s popular pani puri to start, an Indian street snack of puffed-crispy hollow semolina shell stuffed with beets, sprouted moong dal (green lentils) and a bit of chile all moistened with tamarind-and-date chutney and minty green juice ($9).

I’m also delighted with the excellent naan infused with cheddar and a touch of hellishly hot ghost pepper ($6), and the calories-be-damned decadent vindaloo packed with lots of pork belly in a fiery habanero curry decorated with bell pepper, shallots and peanuts ($15).

My server warned my the dishes might sizzle my palate, and I ended up alternating bites with creamy saag paneer to cool down. This is a wonderful rendition of the classic spinach and cheese casserole perfumed with fenugreek and turmeric ($15).

Crab cake korma is another Ghee signature boasting Patel’s inventive touch. The big, crisp-edged round is topped in curls of marinated cucumber and red onion and set in a beige pond of cashew crème sprinkled in shallots ($18) — compared to the other dishes, it’s rather bland.

I prefer the more robust salmon that’s marinated in turmeric, pan seared to a perfect crisp skin and moist interior, bathed in coconut curry with curry leaf, carrot, zucchini, fennel and bright herbs ($19).

Scoop it with the pillowy, bubble charred, ghee-moistened naan ($4) and it’s one dish you won’t want to share.

While chutneys and pickles are a hallmark of Indian dining, here, you can actually skip them ($2 each). To be sure, I really like the vibrant flavored condiments like sweet mango and tangy cucumber yogurt raita.

Yet there’s already so much flavor in Bollywood’s recipes that they don’t need more gilding. Even the basmati rice is special, imbued with glorious ghee and cumin ($4) or as brown grains tossed with quinoa, lentils and crunchy cashews ($7).

I’m trying to think of the last time I ordered dessert in an Indian restaurant, meanwhile. Spongy, sticky dumplings and puddings don’t usually thrill me. But Bollywood models are reinvented, and worth trying, such as the gulab jamun milk dumplings drizzled with spicy ginger syrup and set atop white chocolate crème sprinkled in pistachio bits ($10). Brittle pink-purple shards of hibiscus meringue add color and crunch, and I love how the dish isn’t too heavy or sweet.

In this case, the gulab jamun is perfectly photo worthy, looking like a small, abstract sculpture. But still, if you could embrace the aromas through your computer or this newspaper, you’d surely appreciate the Bollywood beauty even more.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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