No matter how good a meal is, it's hard to enjoy it when you're eating in your overcoat. During a recent dinner at India Palace, the modest dining room was so chilly that my frozen fingers could barely hold on to a fork. Although it was sixteen degrees out that night, the restaurant's front door was propped wide open to the whooshing traffic on Parker and Yale.
When, through chattering teeth, I asked our server if the door could be closed, he asked, "You're cold?" then went about his business for another ten minutes. Finally he did remember to shut the door, but the place never came close to growing toasty.
How the food stayed warm on our plates more than two minutes after it left the kitchen, I'll never know. But those wonderful Indian spices must have had something to do with it. From our first starter, we sensed a warming trend. The appetizer meat samosas ($2.50 for two), three-dimensional triangles filled with ground lamb and beef, were well-seasoned with garam masala, the common Indian blend of coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, and packed the added punch of chile powder. Our other appetizer, the India kabobs ($6.25), arrived fresh from the tandoor, still sizzling on a cast-iron platter. We warmed our hands over the dish before we started picking at the generous helping of chicken legs, logs of ground lamb and large chunks of lamb shank. The meats had all served time in a tart, salty marinade that helped form a slight crust on their outside while keeping the flesh inside tender and juicy.
For entrees, India Palace's menu includes the typical roster of madras, vindaloos, masalas, curries and biriyanis, as well as two variations on thali, the complete Indian meal traditionally served on a brass tray (also called a thali). Here, though, the meal was offered up on a big plate--one of many clues that India Palace has a less than regal budget. (Another one: glass tabletops whose spidery cracks brought to mind the average Colorado windshield.) But the kitchen doesn't skimp on the food: The non-vegetarian thali ($15.95) was a generous assemblage of well-spiced (with an emphasis on turmeric and ginger) chicken curry, vegetable samosa, rice, garlic naan and that day's two vegetables, the bhindi masala, onions and tomatoes cooked with coriander and thickened with okra, and the alu mutter, potatoes and peas laced with cumin.
The vegetarian mutter paneer ($7.95) brought more peas and Indian cheese (for a recipe, see Mouthing Off) in a gravy-like liquid that had just a touch of chile powder and an irresistible coconut-milk base. Still, our best entree was the lamb madras ($10.95), a falling-off-the-bone lamb shank drenched in a madras-based sauce. (Madras is one of the hottest of the curry-powder blends, typically including two dried red chiles for every two and a half ounces of a mixture of coriander, cumin, mustard, black pepper, curry leaves, ginger and turmeric.) The addictive sauce tasted as though nothing but water had been added to the powder before the meat was stewed in the mix, so the spices and the grease from the lamb combined into one sinfully delicious brew.
The entrees all came with a hefty helping of plain but well-cooked basmati rice and bowls of raita, the ubiquitous yogurt dip perfect for flavoring shards of naan and for cooling tongues. The garlic naan that came with the thali had a gentle garlic bite and a bright color contributed by parsley; we also sampled an order of kabli naan ($2.50), filled with nuts and golden raisins for a sweet taste that complemented the savory main dishes, as well as the sides of well-balanced tamarind sauce and mint chutney.
We followed up our excellent meal with more sweets: kheer, an Indian rice pudding that came with the thali; and housemade mango kulfi and pistachio kulfi (each $2.50), two wonderfully textured India-style ice creams bursting with flavor. Although normally ice cream would have been the ideal counterpoint to the spicier dishes, it wasn't what we really wanted to eat in a sub-freezing room. And it didn't help matters that the waiter, who'd been inattentive all night, plunked the dessert bowls right down on top of our dirty dinner plates.
Fortunately, when we returned for lunch two weeks later, the dining room was much warmer. Unfortunately, since we no longer had to concentrate on staying warm, we could devote more of our attention to our service and surroundings. The television, which hangs directly above the buffet and had been tuned to some Middle Eastern show during our dinner, was now showing a soap opera. "The hell with you, Jeremy," blared out at one point, much to the amusement of my four-year-old. My younger daughter was busy amusing herself with the mouthpiece from a New Year's Eve noisemaker that she'd found perched on the back of our booth--mind you, this was two weeks into 1999. She also managed to scrounge a dried piece of naan from her seat and pull someone's used napkin from a crack in the booth. Appetizing.
Once again, though, the food was much better than the lackluster service and spartan--and soiled--surroundings would lead you to expect. The buffet was a good deal at $5.95 per person, since it included meat and vegetarian entrees, an American-style salad setup, basmati rice and rice pudding. With the exception of the pudding, which had the tangy taste of cream gone bad, everything was delicious. The saag paneer, an onion-heavy version of the traditional Indian spinach dish, was particularly tasty, with fresh spinach leaves cooked into goo with cheese and cream. The chicken curry came awash in a sauce pungent with garlic and ginger. And the dal soup, thick with lentils and vegetables and strong with cumin, was so dense it proved an ideal topping for the basmati.
Although the vegetable pakora, deep-fried cauliflower, potatoes and bell peppers, sported a little too much batter, the cumin and coriander flavoring was just right. The tender/chewy tandoori chicken was perfect, as was the Bombay alu, potatoes cooked so long in a curry-sparked tomato sauce that they disintegrated when a fork hit them. The semi-soft mushrooms that abounded in the mushroom mutter had been stewed with onions in a tomato-based sauce that tasted faintly of cinnamon. And there was even an alternative to the rice pudding for the end of the meal: gulab jamons, wet, sugary balls made from flour and milk and flavored with cardamom and rosewater, with the surprise--and welcome--addition of black peppercorn bits.
But man does not live by such sweet bread alone. After we finished the meal, we visited the ladies' room--where a blob of dried toilet paper that had been stuck to the ceiling with a dozen other blobs of dried toilet paper fell on my daughter's head as she stepped away from the sink. The frightening blobs had been there on our first visit; I can't imagine why no one had cleaned them off in the meantime.
Then again, I can't imagine what the owners were thinking when they opened this restaurant in the first place. They clearly care about the food, but they don't seem to have given any thought to where--or how--that food is served. India Palace's owner is Harjinger Maddu, or at least I think he is: My conversations with various employees were stymied by a language barrier. As I understand it, Maddu and several of India Palace's employees were once part-owners of Taj Mahal on 17th Avenue, and after they sold their interest in that restaurant, they opened India Palace in December 1997, in a space that had previously been occupied by assorted ethnic eateries.
The Palace's presence has yet to make much of a splash, though. When I called the restaurant after my meals there to get background information, I asked manager Sonny Singh about that unfortunate open-door policy. "People don't know that we're open," he explained. "When the door is closed, it looks like we're closed." That may be, but it's not the customers' fault. Singh might want to light a sign before customers start lighting tablecloths in order to stay warm. During our chat, Singh repeatedly asked me to "do right by us," then added, "If you come back in, I promise we'll take good care of you."
First, though, he'd better take care of a few problems at his restaurant. India Palace could use a thorough cleaning--and then some housecleaning of the staff. This restaurant may make food fit for a king, but the way it's served is a royal pain.
India Palace, 2651 South Parker Road, Aurora, 303-337-7446. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
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