Service fit for a king

Restaurant: The India Palace's wait staff really know their business, and the food's good, too.

September 19, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The owners of the new India Palace aren't modest. They call their restaurant "Baltimore's Taj Mahal of Indian restaurants."

This is stretching things a bit, particularly when you consider the strip shopping center location, the entrance -- already somewhat scruffy -- and the green neon.

The interior has potential, but right now there's a bar empty of bottles because the liquor license hasn't come through yet, and a couple of large dining rooms that could use a bit more in the way of decoration. Still, the soothing color scheme, mirrors, a few plants and spotless white napery are pleasant.

Where the India Palace gets a little closer to Taj Mahal status is in the service, which is self-effacing but superb. The food isn't bad, either.

Tandoori chicken, lamb curries -- you've seen these traditional dishes before, at India Palace's sister restaurant, the Mughal Garden downtown, and other Indian restaurants in the area. But the sauces here have a depth of flavor that's unusual. The tangy, yogurt-based sauce of the vegetable korma, for instance, is balanced by the rich smoothness of almonds and edged with subtle spiciness. You may not be able to identify the herbs and spices in these aromatic dishes, but you can taste the several distinct flavors.

The fragrant intensity of the lamb curry's sauce outshines the cubes of lamb themselves. And chunks of salmon go almost unnoticed as we mop up their glossy, generously seasoned, tomato-based sauce with warm slices of flat naan bread.

For those unsure of what to order, the "Chef Recommendations" includes an "India Feast for Two" for $37.95. You'll get an appetizer, a sampler of meats grilled in the tandoor oven, lamb or chicken curry, a couple of side dishes and bread.

I could have happily skipped the appetizers and saved room for the rest of the meal. The deep-fried vegetable pakoras in their chickpea flour batter are undistinguished. Chaat papri, a combination of fried wheat chips, diced potatoes and chickpeas with yogurt, tamarind sauce and coriander chutney, is a much more interesting first course, but so odd that a little goes a long way. Only the mulligatawny soup really sings; it's smooth and tangy with the rich flavor of lentils.

With the entrees, though, the kitchen is in its element. India Palace's tandoor chicken, marinated in yogurt and grilled, is surprisingly juicy under its red-tinged exterior. Assertively spiced ground lamb, grilled in the tandoor on skewers, is a pleasing contrast.

Gently spiced lentils -- the dish is known as dal -- come with the India Feast. They are a must-have. And the vegetable of the day, cauliflower sauteed with tomatoes, is another highlight of the meal. Vegetarians can eat happily and inexpensively here.

We haven't ordered anything really spicy, but the India Palace has the classic vindaloos and other dishes to set your hair on fire. If you do say you want your dinner mild, the kitchen respects that.

Desserts are the super-sweet and subtly flavored Indian standards that are soothing after the explosion of flavors and textures that have come before. Try the gulab jamun balls, warm and soft, soaked in honey and rose-water syrup, or the homemade ice cream perfumed with pistachios and mangoes.

The rice pudding is delicate, with a faint flavor of raisins and nuts. If none of these appeals, there's always the aromatic Indian tea, filled with spices and best drunk with lots of milk.

INDIA PALACE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 35 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$8.95; main courses, $9.95-$17.95

Call: 410-628-6800

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

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