Spectrum of spice

Dining review
Palace of India chana masala
Chana masala. Photo by Bryan Esler

By Ira Craaven

With large nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, you can peer inside Palace of India and see the often-busy dining room with its cloth napkins and heaping basketfuls of naan and other traditional Indian favorites — steam rising and wafting deep flavorful aromas of coriander, cumin and garlic across the table.

Palace of India quickly gained a following when it first opened on Fulton Street in the Midtown neighborhood. After nearly two years, those dedicated diners happily followed the restaurant when it moved further west to 138 E. Fulton St. in downtown Grand Rapids, where it’s been for the past nearly five years.

Palace of India focuses on “culinary delights that were relished in the palaces of the Maharajas.” The kitchen uses tandoor (traditional clay oven) and kadhai (Indian wok) to prepare its dishes.

On a Saturday night, I visited Palace of India with a couple of friends. We settled into our table by the window (where we had the fun of spotting friends passing by as they came and went on their night out). With its location on a walkable stretch of downtown, Palace of India benefits from the energy of a bustling downtown, which carries into the dining room.

We began our dinner with the vegetarian appetizer platter ($9.95), which consists of samosas, vegetable cutlet, paneer pakora and vegetable pakora. We also enjoyed the complimentary papadum, which came with two sauces for dipping, one a sweet tamarind brown sauce and the other a spicy green sauce with mint and cilantro as its main ingredients.

The papadum and its accompanying sauces were excellent. The vegetable platter served up a couple of hits and a few misses. We enjoyed the vegetable pakora but found the paneer pakora bland. The samosas also were a hit at our table, but the vegetable cutlet was less enticing.

For entrées, we ordered the chicken vindaloo ($12.95), shrimp masala ($14.95) and chana masala ($11.95), along with two bowls of rice ($5.90), cheese naan ($3.95) and regular naan ($1.95).

The shrimp masala and the chicken vindaloo were the group’s favorite dishes. The masala sauce was full of flavor and generously drenched the plump shrimp, giving it the desired blend of creamy onion, tomato and herb flavoring, while the vindaloo sauce brought a spicy but edible jolt to the chicken and potatoes (my dining companion did ask for the sauce to be made slightly milder than the menu promises). The chana masala didn’t quite hit the spot with its spiced onion and tomato gravy mix, however.

With barely enough room for dessert — Palace of India serves up generous portions — we split the gajar halwa ($4.95) and pista kulfi ($4.95). Both were tasty. The pista kulfi was especially refreshing. This ice cream-like dessert offers up nearly frozen cubes of pistachio flavor that melted on our tongues.

On our second trip, the three of us covered the spice spectrum, so to speak, with dishes ranging from mild to moderate to oh, my!

Palace of India offers a full bar, but with no specialty cocktails, we opted to try an Indian beer, Taj Mahal ($5.95). Comparable to a typical American lager, it was a crisp and refreshing start to the meal.

For appetizers, we tried the chicken pakora ($6.95) and gave the paneer pakora ($5.95) a second shot. The chicken slices were slathered in spicy batter and deep-fried, while the paneer pakora featured fried Indian cheese blended with herbs and spices. Our waiter suggested using the complimentary green sauce with the chicken, and it added a nice touch of zest. The paneer pakora, however, once again fell flat.

On the “oh, my” side of the spicy spectrum, the lamb vindaloo ($14.95), just like the chicken version, certainly brought the heat after a few bites. The tender, marinated lamb leg was served with seasoned potatoes in a spicy tomato and onion sauce that was piping hot. We also tried the chicken tikka masala ($12.95), which was just as flavorful as the shrimp version, but with tender white chicken. A side of cheese naan ($3.95) not only featured a delicious arrangement of cheese, onion, pepper and Indian spices inside naan bread, but it helped curb the heat from the other meals.

Those with a softer palette might want to try the lamb dal ($14.95). It’s one of a few dishes that doesn’t feature a traditional tomato sauce base, instead opting for a yogurt and lentil combination. The seasoning is apparent, but not overwhelming. The tender lamb cubes were easily split with a fork and good-sized. Despite our attentive waiter twice asking if we wanted rice with the dish, we declined. In hindsight, the rice would have been a good pairing with the yogurt/lentil sauce. Still, the meal portion was large enough without the carbs to satisfy.

Dessert after a spicy meal usually screams for ice cream, and our visit was no exception, as we tried the Mango Kulfi ($4.95). A hidden gem, though, was the Gulab Jamun ($4.95), an Indian delicacy made of dry milk and semolina flour, fried golden and served in a sweet sauce. With only two of the tasty fried dough balls swimming in the syrup, it was tough to share among the dining companions. But the taste and texture were delicious, and the hot dough balls complemented the cold mango-flavored ice cream well. GR

Palace of India
138 E. Fulton St., Grand Rapids
Phone: (616) 913-9000

Dining ratings:

Food: ***
Service: ****
Beverages: ***
Atmosphere: ***

Must try:
Shrimp masala

Not so much:
Paneer pakora

Guide to ratings:

**** Exceptional
*** Above Average
** Satisfactory
* Poor

¢ Inexpensive (under $10)
$ Moderate ($10-$20)
$$ Expensive (Over $20)

(Prices based on average entrée.)

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