Where to start. Maybe it should be with the belly dancer wearing the live snake like a flamboyant bolo tie. Or perhaps with the huge outdoor screen upon which a slightly confusing Bollywood movie car chase plays out. (That guy is definitely a bad guy, but how about this one?)
On the other hand, inside there are walls crowded with pictures of Bollywood A-list celebs, computer screens on which to peruse Technicolor closeups of each menu item and white molded-plastic bucket chairs that look like something Ann-Margret would have slouched across in Tommy.
It's safe to say that Bollywood Café, opened in February, brings something all-new to Westchase. It's not so much an Indian restaurant as an Indian-themed restaurant, a celebration of that country's food, music and pop culture. The menu is a cheeky mix of straight-up Indian, "urban Indian" dishes and kooky Indo-fusion hybrids (tandoori penne vodka and tikka tacos). There's more excitement on the horizon: A pending beer and wine license has slowed down the late-night, clubby part of the agenda, and an ambitious tabletop "e-menu" digital ordering option hasn't yet been implemented.
Still, I found plenty of excitement already, maybe too much: My second visit, with a bit of swagger, I ordered the goat biryani ($12.99) spicy hot. Innocent-looking basmati is cooked separately with onion, cilantro, spices and lovely sliced toasted almonds, then hot-as-Hades moist lengths of bone-in braised goat are sunk like depth charges into its midst. Absolutely fabulous, but so spicy it called for cold compresses and vats of cooling yogurt.
That cautionary tale told, here's another: The menu, a slew of connected pages and loose inserts bright with food closeups and icons indicating halal and vegetarian dishes, can induce panic. The young servers, almost all non-Indian and wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with "Actor" and "Actress," will be patient as you rifle through, trying to find that eggplant curry platter ($8.99) and comparing it to the chicken mint tikka ($9.99). Both of those are winners, by the way, the former a little square bowl with soupy curry served alongside white basmati and a stack of naan. The latter is a grill-smoky white-meat chicken kebab with a hefty drizzle of vibrant cilantro-mint sauce, served with rice and a jumble of roasted peppers.
Breads are the weakest link at Bollywood Café, both the naan and the fried white-flour puri overshadowed by whatever they accompany. But that's not always a bad thing. They are the neutral foil for dishes like Punjabi chole bature ($6.99), a vegetarian chickpea dish lively with tomato, ginger, turmeric and chilies. More mild and creamy, a pale orange butter chicken ($8.99, also offered at the same price with paneer, that spongy Indian cheese) comes with lots of sauce for satisfying naan-waggling.
The dining room noise cranks up every few minutes as the blender purees a dreamy mango or strawberry lassi ($3.99), a filling, quenching, dessertlike yogurt-based beverage. This should not be consumed in lieu of dessert, as that would be to miss some of the café's greatest razzle-dazzle. Kulfi ($4.99), an Indian-style ice cream, is offered in several flavors, the pistachio and the caramel, drizzled with rose syrup, the most swoon-worthy. Borrowing from Iran, the Bollywood Café is one of the area's few purveyors of falooda, a sweet-sour sorbet of lemonade and rosewater in which chewy strands of vermicelli provide texture ($3.99). Sadly, the falooda and the syrup-saturated fried dough malai jalebi ($2.99) are often sold out.
Owner Raj Armani is clearly smitten with where restaurants meet technology. The café is already Tweeting, Facebooking and YouTubing to beat the band, and the virtual ordering system sounds like uncharted ground for Tampa Bay. It gives the restaurant an edgy, youthful quality that is reinforced by the decor and the playful fusion dishes. But make no mistake, the skill in the kitchen is altogether grown up.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.