Dependability spiced with a dash of warmth Restaurant: With a new owner, Akbar Palace has made a small change in name and slight changes in its menu, too.

October 25, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

In July the Randallstown Akbar became the Akbar Palace.

The name change is significant. Or maybe I should say the lack of name change. The Indian restaurant has a new owner, Chandra Nigam, who has some connections to the former owners. (They still own an Akbar downtown and one in Columbia.).

The connection is reflected in both the name and the menu. Nigam has expanded the latter to include some new specialties and some Southern Indian dishes, but what's noteworthy is that there are no great changes. And that's good when you start with as dependable a restaurant as the Akbar was.

Probably the biggest plus of the ownership change is the presence of this affable man in the dining room, with his very likable staff. The people here add a warmth that the large, open dining room lacks.

When the first Akbar opened downtown many years ago, it was the only restaurant in town to specialize in Northern Indian food. Dishes like its signature crab Malabar (made with back fin and cream) set it apart in a city where Indian food was synonymous with curry. Since then we've had innovations of various kinds at most of the new places that have opened up, from the Cafe Bombay's separate southern vegetarian menu to the Ambassador's individual plating of food.

Maybe there's nothing much new left to do, but the Akbar Palace's menu seems very familiar.

We tried to sample what was new. Dosas (huge, paper-thin filled pancakes) are one of the Akbar Palace's additions to the menu; but our waiter told us that for some reason, never really explained, the kitchen couldn't make them that evening. We settled instead for another new dish, shrimp mustard.

One of the pleasures of eating Indian food is the chance to indulge in flavors you don't run into every day. So maybe we shouldn't have ordered a dish called shrimp mustard unless we wanted what we got, namely shrimp in a strongly mustard-flavored cream sauce. But somehow we assumed mustard would be only one of a complex of spices.

The lamb Xacutti, a West Coast curry with toasted coconut and layers of fiery flavor, was more to our taste. But the most appealing dish was a standard, chicken tikki masala. The chicken kept its distinct smoky flavor from being cooked in a tandoor oven, a pleasant contrast with the spicy, buttery sauce.

You can start with little appetizer bits of lamb ground with peppers and onions, or a thick, flavorful lentil soup; but our favorite first course was peshawri nan, unleavened bread stuffed with dried fruits and nuts and baked in the tandoor oven. That didn't stop us, of course, from ordering more breads to dip into our main-course sauces: whole-wheat chapati and the deep-fried, football-shaped puff called poori.

For dessert we tried the Akbar Palace's ice creams. The restaurant offers a cooling, creamy mango or pistachio ice cream; either will appeal to just about anyone after a highly spiced meal. But I have a sneaking fondness for kulfi, the frozen dessert made in-house. The little, dense, icy-cold rectangles taste of condensed milk, pistachio and rose water and have none of the familiarity of the commercial ice creams. But they have an odd appeal all their own.

Akbar Palace

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: 3541 Brenbrook Drive, Randallstown

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$7.95; main courses, $8.95-$16.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-655-1600

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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