Fit for a King

New Delhi Palace serves classic Indian cuisine to thrill your palate. If they would only lighten up.

Spice is holy--that's obvious. It may even be healing--ginger and turmeric are getting great press these days in integrative medicine circles.

It follows, then, that Indian food, with its ancient, breathtakingly sophisticated use of the full spice palette, is one of the great good things of life. And it's a good thing that New Delhi Palace has been reliably providing for years to spice-hungry Zonies. Therefore, New Delhi Palace is a reason to rejoice.

Exotic yet comforting, good Indian food tastes like something you lost long ago--you remember more than discover it. And its pleasures, for us Westerners anyway, are paradoxical: It's the collision of baby-food textures with dense, ideally grown-up flavor that makes this cuisine so fascinating. Everything that hasn't been roasted, fried or grilled within an inch of its life is smushy, soft and in any other context, would be overcooked. Combined with the resonant flavors of the subcontintent, though, dissolving vegetables and blasted meat become heavenly. Matured over thousands of years by uncountable cooks working with often questionable ingredients-- the meats of India are seared dry and intensely seasoned for good reason--Indian food warms the belly and lingers in the mouth like nothing else.

New Delhi Palace does Indian food wonderfully. On two different nights, we went and ate and staggered home satisfied. Both times, we started with the Assorted Snacks ($4.95), an appetizer plate with crisp-outside, soft-inside vegetable pakoras (vegetable fritters), a plump samosa (India's potato-and-spice-stuffed take on the international thin-dough-with-something-in-it concept), two pieces of sheesh kebab (here appearing as finely chopped roasted meat) and salty papadum. This tasty little plate comes with a generous side of chili-spiked cilantro relish, about which it would be impossible to say too much. The juicy greenness of the salsa makes the whole thing hum--I ended up eating it with my spoon.

The first time we went, my husband had Tandoori Shrimp ($14.95); I ordered the Karhai Aloo Palak ($7.55). The second time, he tried the Chicken Vindaloo ($8.85), hot version--dishes are available mild, medium or hot--while I got the Palak again. (It's a sort of hefty, wholesome creamed spinach with potatoes and who knows what else--and so good that I forgot about reviewing protocol and had it twice.) Everything is served family-style, so we split the entrees, along with an order of garlic naan ($2.50)--stretchy, smoking-hot thin bread sprinkled with fresh parsley--cooling raita (yogurt and cucumber, basically) and butter-scented basmati rice. Everything was beautifully fresh and delicious, particularly when washed down with icy Bass Ale, one of two dozen foreign bottled beers on the list. The clear, bitter edge of beer is spectacular paired with complex, fiery spice.

The service at New Delhi Palace is serene, friendly and prompt, the linens nice, the walls covered by pretty, otherworldly murals. It's quiet. It's a very good value. There's an elegant older man who presents the tandoori dishes with unspeakable élan, carmelizing the onions as he holds the sizzling tandoori platter in one hand and the fragrance fills the room. The place, moreover, is just a few blocks east of Broadway and Wilmot, on the southwest corner of Jessica and Broadway, next to the monster Walgreens. Yet, both times we were in, the big dining room was underpopulated, and on the first occasion, we were seated near a dour table of four using entertainment-book coupons. They sniffed over the "spiciness" of the food--which was obviously something different than they'd expected, examined the check minutely and fussed about the price of iced tea. ("It's $1.50? I thought it was a dollar. At least it's all you can drink.")

In short, New Delhi Palace does not have the audience it deserves. Cooking as they do, they shouldn't have to comp half the meals or explain the idea of an automatic gratuity to Lincoln owners intent on leaving 8-percent tips.

I think I know why they don't do more business. Part of it's the neighborhood--New Delhi Palace sits just at the edge of the vast eastside ghetto of snowbird apartment blocks--and part of it's the lighting--a common weakness of Asian restaurants. (Sushi joints are different, because something about the Japanese aesthetic makes instant sense to us Americans.) How many great Vietnamese, Burmese, Indian and Thai meals has your average hot-and-spicy-chow fan eaten under glaring-yet-dismal overhead bulbs? Many, and I don't mean to say these places aren't terrific, or that warm, steady lighting makes the food any better or the service any kinder, or that the families who own them aren't working 100-hour weeks. (In fact, I think that's one reason why ethnic places are often a little dowdy--you tend not to really see the place where you live.)

No, what I'm saying is to pull people in and charge what the food deserves, a restaurant must be a bit festive. People should feel so happy when they're there that they're eager to come back, and there's nothing like 60 watts flickering through the whir of ceiling fans to cast a Hitchcockian pall over an otherwise triumphant meal. New Delhi Palace is much nicer than most ethnic strip-mall places --in many ways, it's really elegant--but it, too, could use the immediate help of a lighting designer.

For my money, the food is just as good as that at Nirvana in New York, where they charge four times as much. Granted, part of that is for the view of Central Park, but it's also true that at Nirvana, you're bathed in soft light and surrounded by billows of print fabric that make you feel happy and enclosed and loved. An evening there glows when you think back over it. It's a pretty simple trick, and New Delhi Palace has got the goods to pull it off. They should.

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