QUEEN OF CUISINE: Hidden treasure

BY CARLA WALDEMAR

India Palace
2546 Hennepin Ave. S.
612-377-5000
www.indiapalacemn.com

There it was, hiding in plain sight. I’d passed the tiny strip mall almost daily enroute to the supermarket, the pharmacy, the coffee shop, but paid no attention to the new tenant (Nail salon? Yoga studio? Whatever). Silly me.
When I finally focused on the tiny neon sign that read “India Palace,” I stopped in my tracks. And stopped in for lunch.
Lunch = buffet. Let me first explain that I usually run the other way when that word figures in a menu. And second, that I love-love-love the elegant cuisines of India. It’s the only country I can think of where such a lunch lineup is not a parade of overcooked, underseasoned victuals. In India, even five-star hotels brag on their tasty and extensive array of what’s waiting in those silvery pans, for the kitchen’s rich blends of spices only get better as they rest over the course of the noontime meal. Lentils and veggies, chicken and fish are meant to almost melt rather than remain crisp and chewy.
India Palace got the memo. The dining room was crowded with folks who hadn’t waited as long as I to become fans. Even the setting took me by pleasant surprise—an inviting, contemporary dining room clad in dove gray and darker pewter, burnt orange and deep plum, all brightened with natural light. Add the savory aromas coming from the lineup of over a dozen delicious choices, in addition to a small selection of salad fixings. Servers whisk one plate away as a diner heads to fill another.
Drifts of basmati rice and a more colorful biryani version lead the parade. Veggie samosas follow—crisp and, OK, a bit greasy bundles stuffed with a puree of peas and potatoes, mildly seasoned. Then the floodgates open: today, black lentil curry, rich and piqued with chilies; palak paneer—my particular addiction, showcasing creamy spinach bobbing with dice-sized chunks of soft, homemade cheese; tender chicken in well-seasoned cooking juices; also, a chili chicken, deep with the flavors of onion and green chilies.
A fresh plate, and on to coconut fish—chunks bobbing in a creamy sauce that hid a nice, surprising near-sour tang to cut through the richness. Then tandoori chicken, glowing with its mild red spices. Marble-size lamb meatballs in a savory golden gravy bearing a slight hint of heat. And more, more, more. Fill a saucer with raita—that liquid yogurt made herbal with the palate-cleansing taste of cucumber and salt. Then use a half-moon of naan, warm from the oven, to chase down any vagrant particles.
Finally, dessert. India Palace offered three—a so-so golden mango pudding bearing bits of fruit; rice pudding that’s milky and very sweet; and warm globes of gulab jamun—deep-fried milk balls afloat in an ultra-sweet sugar syrup, giving the balls—a classic Indian favorite—the texture of a dunked doughnut. Total tab: $12.99.
Add a drink if you choose, and there are plenty to wet your whistle, ranging from mango or strawberry lassi (like salty yogurt) and chai to beer (including the iconic Kingfisher, the Bud of India) and a modest wine list. Then, on your way out, grab a pinch from the bowl of anise seeds and bitty licorice candies to clear your breath and prepare you for the real world outside the door.
Dinners (untasted) involve table service from an extensive menu of breads, tandoori-grilled items, vegetarian and rice specialties, and many choices involving chicken, beef, lamb and seafood.

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