Hillcrest is so densely peppered with restaurants that some are tucked into the most unobtrusive of corners. It is these—the ones without glaring signs or elaborate facades—that have the most potential to surprise and delight. India Palace, located in a small shopping center on University and Seventh, is one such gem—while it shares the same modest storefront as its neighbors, it proves itself to be worlds apart.
Before setting foot into the quaint, 80-person restaurant, we discover the best thing about its shopping-center location: convenient free parking. We easily guide into a space right out front of the restaurant, walk five feet from curb to door, and within seconds find ourselves transported to a comfortable, welcoming setting.
Despite its proximity, the parking lot seems far away once we step inside. The restaurant is awash in cool tones and a modern-meets-traditional vibe. The walls have been hand-painted with geometric designs—a star motif on the ceiling, trompe l’oeil arches on the walls, pastel dots running a ribbon-like border around the room. Where the artwork is modern, the furniture is classic, with a striking wood bar and gracefully curved upholstered chairs. The combination works harmoniously, and the room resonates peaceful and calm.
We are immediately greeted by a waiter and host, and are given our choice of seating: indoors or out. The large dining room has oversized curved booths and elegantly appointed tables, but while the setting is serene and calm, I am lured by the weather. The bar is flanked on both sides with entrances to the street-side patio, which with terracotta tiles and a running fountain is just as peaceful as the indoor space. Unlike many outdoor spaces, this one doesn't sacrifice the luxury of indoor furniture—the same elegant, upholstered chairs surround each outdoor table.
We're led past several tables for two and four, as well as by the trunk of a large tree, which somebody thoughtfully spared in constructing the patio. Seated, I feel like I could spend hours here, enjoying the warm air and the comfortable setting. The menu is luxuriously long, and we spend some time combing over our options. The varied collection of authentic Northern Indian dishes is overseen by Owner and Executive Chef Chanchal Singh, who boasts over 30 years in the restaurant business and three restaurants to his name. The menu's descriptions are tempting, and decision making is difficult. Our strategy, we decide, is to sample one each of the meat offerings—chicken, lamb, and seafood—plus a vegetarian dish. We also can't resist the freshly baked flatbreads, and several sides and chutneys.
We start with the Kachumber Salad, a chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion, tossed with a house chat masala spice blend and lemon juice. While listed as a side order, the portion is oversized and generous, a heaping pile of pale vegetables studded with the reds and oranges of ground spices. The first bite is appetite-awakening, the crisp, moist vegetables the perfect counterpart to the sharp, complex spices. The dish has the effect of an amuse bouche—a "mouth teaser"—and I eagerly anticipate the dishes that are to come.
Right on cue, the rest of our meal arrives at once. Suddenly, the pale green tablecloth is covered with colors and textures, an array of curries, chutneys, and tandoori meats. We start with the flatbreads, reaching for the piping hot slices tucked in cloth-covered baskets. The menu offers both oven-baked nan and pan-fried paratha, with over a dozen sweet and savory versions. It's a treat to sample the Kashmiri Nan, a sweet version of plump, airy dough stuffed with nuts, raisins, cherries, and shaved coconut. The filling is a fuchsia pink, the taste just barely sweet and fruity. The Spinacha Paratha offers flavors on the other end of the spectrum, the buttery crust breaking to reveal a cooked spinach layer that lends a savory, earthy element to each bite.
The sizzling plate of Seek Kabob captures our attention next—how could it not? Fresh from the tandoor, it crackles and hisses as it rests on a warm cast iron skillet. A bed of barely-cooked onions and peppers holds four slices of Seek—ground lamb carefully wrapped around a skewer, marinated, and cooked in the 800-degree oven. Pulled off the skewers just before serving, the pieces have a hollow center, preserving the oblong shape of the enormous rod. We easily slice through the meat and are rewarded with subtle and mild flavors and a moist texture. While the dish resonates with the distinct sweet and earthy flavor of lamb, the presentation reminds me of sausage without the casing, a succulent and savory treat.
Before moving on, we sample the array of chutneys—mango, mint, and tamarind—as well as an order of raita, a traditional yogurt accompaniment. The tamarind proves a favorite, a sweet, tangy concoction that is elusive and exotic. Second is the mango, which combines the sweet flavor of mango with a potent, spicy note of fresh ginger. The mint pairs particularly well with the lamb, while the raita, tart and tangy, clears the palate between bites.
The rest of the dishes on the table are prepared with such rich sauces that the chutneys seem unnecessary. The vegetarian dish, Malai Kofta, proves to be the hands-down favorite of the meal. Malai Kofta are vegetable balls made by roasting potatoes and cauliflower, mashing the cooked vegetables, mixing them with paneer (a soft farmers cheese), forming them into balls, deep frying them, and finally blanketing them with a rich cream sauce and cooking them a second time. The multiple steps in this effort are well worth it—the dish is absolutely decadent. The sauce is vibrant and golden, thick and creamy, studded with soft onions, and offering hints of fresh herbs and spices with each bite. The plump vegetable balls cut easily with a fork, the center of each offering several pillowy and creamy bites. It is unique and exotic, and yet a quintessential comfort food.
The Chicken Tikka Masala is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. It’s no wonder—it is a dish that takes an already flavorful, stand alone dish—tandoori chicken—and adds a rich, delectable sauce. It’s like smothering fried chicken in gravy, or dousing maple syrup over French toast—an already rich dish becomes even richer. The version at India Palace is a deep brick red color, a pool of deep, resonant sauce holding small bits of marinated, oven-fired chicken. The sauce is sweet and creamy with a slight tang, plump with flavors of tomato and cream. I can't help but be reminded of a lush, creamy tomato bisque, peppered with fresh herbs and a medley of spices. Looking around, we are not the only ones enjoying this familiar treat.
Scallop Korma is recommended by our server, a seafood version of a traditional North Indian dish. The dish is also available with chicken, lamb, or vegetables, and after trying the scallop version I am tempted to try the others. The highlight of the dish is the thick, creamy sauce, a comforting concoction of coconut milk blended with almonds, cashews, and raisins. Its pale golden color and smooth, mild flavors entice us bite after bite. Like all the sauces on the table, it is rich and silky, lending subtle flavors and a delicate richness. And, like its predecessors, it is accessible and enjoyable.
This seems to be the theme at India Palace. Each of the dishes, while offering a hint of the exotic, seem to have a familiar, comforting aspect that makes them accessible to even those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine. Many of the dishes, while offering unique, enticing flavors, seem somehow familiar in texture or color. Whether or not the resemblance is close—the Seek Kabobs are far more flavorful than sausage; the Chicken Tikka Masala much more intriguing than tomato bisque—it proves one thing: comfort food is indeed universal.
And then our dessert arrives, once again proving the rich, satisfying power of Northern Indian cuisine. The Pistachio Kulfi is one of two flavors of house-made Kulfi, a frozen milk delicacy that resembles ice cream but is more potent and flavorful. The concoction is denser and thicker than western ice cream, with such a firm texture that it is served in cubes rather than in a scoop. The kulfi is sea-foam green, but the bold color belies the subtle flavors of rich milk and slight nuttiness. Made from only milk, sugar, and nuts, the dessert is simple and elemental, the perfect end to a meal that excels in one of the most elemental of pleasures: good, comforting food in a welcoming, peaceful setting.