I have a special place in my heart for the original India Palace. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this Bridgeton gem with an airport view is one of my favorite restaurants in town. So, naturally, I was thrilled to learn of its new downtown location, placed under the direction of long-time general manager Jesse Nagra. Although it's difficult to make lightning strike twice, I set out, famished and with elevated expectations.
The new India Palace was not meant to be a carbon copy of its older sister; although the menu is very similar, there are a few new dishes and a lower price point. However, as a regular patron of the original location, the new digs are a bit shocking, providing a controlled case study in just how important atmosphere is for the overall dining experience. The original location's over-the-top, kitschy charm comes from the fact that it took over a former Polynesian tiki restaurant. The new India Palace had no such luck: It inherited the Spartan digs of the former downtown location of Everest Café & Bar, a small, unadorned storefront with some tables, chairs and a steam table. Nagra tried to dress up the space with a coat of orange paint and a few Indian tapestries, but it still feels like an old cafeteria. It's a bit like drinking Opus One out of a Riedel crystal glass versus a Styrofoam cup — it's the same wine, but somehow it tastes different.
The new location's lack of ambiance is a shame because the restaurant serves well- executed versions of many Indian classics. I began with the vegetable pakora appetizer — five crisp, garbanzo-battered fritters containing eggplant, cauliflower and white onion. The batter was generously flecked with crushed black peppercorns, giving it a warm kick. The accompanying tamarind chutney balanced the spice with piquant sweetness, while the cilantro chutney was cool and refreshing.
India is among the world's great bread-making cultures, and the spinach paratha shows why. This paper-thin, crêpe-like flatbread was pressed with cumin, coriander and black-pepper-spiced spinach that made my lips tingle. The bread was brushed with so much ghee (clarified brown butter) that its gloriously nutty fragrance made it to the table before the bread did. Why Westerners don't cook with more ghee is, to me, one of the great culinary mysteries.
Of the extensive vegetable-focused options, I enjoyed the dal makhani, a porridge-like lentil stew served with tomatoes, green beans and green onions that had a gentle bergamot perfume. The navratan korma was positively decadent — an assortment of mixed vegetables, including eggplant, potatoes, carrots, green beans, tomatoes and onions, simmered with cashews, almonds and raisins in a rich cream sauce. The mildly spiced dish revealed many layers of flavor.
My favorite vegetable dish was the aloo palak, a simple mix of potatoes and spinach. Although there was no added cream to the dish, the spuds were cooked in a way that revealed their natural creaminess — a cross between smashed and skillet-fried potatoes. Garlicky spinach that glistened with butter, sautéed onions and a sprinkling of caraway seeds finished this masterful dish.
My brief dalliance with vegetarianism lasted only until I was treated to the chicken tikka masala. The tart coriander and mint-laden tomato cream sauce was excellent, but I would have preferred more tender meat than the lean white cubes it arrived with. They added little to the dish — thankfully — because the portion was so sparse. The lamb vindaloo dish, on the other hand, was brimming over with chunks of delicate lamb. It was fiery and not for the faint of heart (the chefs will gladly alter the spice level on request). Although the chiles hit me over the head up front, a potpourri of tomatoes and exotic spices gave the dish a complexity that is often missing from super spicy foods.
India Palace may dish out delicious food, but in its new location, the name becomes an unfortunate overstatement. It's a great place to sate a South Asian craving while downtown, but for those looking for more pomp and circumstance, the original reigns supreme.