RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Culinary Passage to India
Yes, they have no pastrami at Delhi Palace. This message didn’t really sink in with my friends, though, until we entered the door and smelled incense burning. I have yet to discover a delicatessen that burns incense (the toast, maybe).
Mea culpa. The name Delhi Palace can certainly be misheard, and I probably should have mentioned that this one is an Indian restaurant. The 6-year-old in our group gave me the big bad wolf routine, implying that he had been lured to dine under false pretenses. (That was before he got hold of the tandoori chicken.) His mother was clearly crestfallen, muttering something under her breath about matzo ball soup.
All’s well that ends well, though. It helps that Delhi Palace is a pretty restaurant. Despite the mini-mall location, it is a quietly graceful, all-pink room that exudes a certain elegance, fashioned in the spirit of the Pink Palace in Jaipur. The walls are painted with classical-style Indian murals that almost glow in the soft lighting. The music, too, seems just right, a medley of taped ragas that relax and enchant.
The food is good without being brilliant. It’s the heavily sauced, substantial Mughlai fare of north India, with no surprises--there’s not a single dish on the menu you won’t find in most other Indian restaurants around Los Angeles--but everything is reasonably well prepared. Don’t make a wide detour to eat here, but do put it in the category of a good neighborhood restaurant.
There are good appetizers to begin with, and you can have them all in a low-priced combination called assorted snacks: pappadum, vegetable pakoras, samosa and shish kebab. Pappadum, that lentil flour crisp that looks like a giant potato chip, is especially good here, with a touch of garlic in the mixture. Everyone likes Delhi Palace’s samosas, too, triangular dumplings filled with a spicy pea potato mixture. The dough is particularly sweet and buttery, making this a rather filling snack.
The vegetable pakoras make a positively sublime snack. Bite-sized pieces of onion and cauliflower are covered with a sun-colored yellow lentil batter and dropped into the deep fryer until they’re an appetizing golden brown. Eat them with the various chutneys the kitchen makes: mint, tamarind and mango. The penetrating, sticky mango chutney is $1.95 extra, but worth it. There is also an off-menu achar (pickle) to spice up the proceedings: oil-soaked pieces of lime, eggplant and raw mango heavily flavored with turmeric.
We might have gobbled up the shish kebab, too, if it hadn’t been for the arrival of more tandoori dishes. Shish kebab is basically the Indian equivalent of a hamburger--ground lamb mixed with spices and chopped onions, grilled on skewers. But a gorgeous whole tandoori chicken (you can order a half chicken if you prefer), sizzling on an iron plate with huge chunks of boti kebab (marinated lamb--ordered separately), stole the show. You should have seen our 6-year-old light into his share of these crusty, red-hot meats crumbly with spice.
At this point, everyone looked sated from the generous amount of food already consumed, when someone looked up and asked, “Is that it?” But we hadn’t even gotten to main dishes.
There is little variety in the entree department. Expect a selection of meat and vegetable dishes cooked in very rich tomato- or cream-based sauces. You are asked to specify mild, medium or spicy at the time of ordering, but don’t bother. The default seems to be medium, and frankly, no matter what you tell them the intensity doesn’t vary all that much.
One of the best dishes is lamb spinach, an amazingly filling dish of stewed, braised lamb in a spinach gravy. Also good are the tomato-rich, vinegary vindaloos from Goa, a former Portuguese enclave on India’s southwest coast. These vindaloos are available either with chicken or lamb and brim with chunked potato, onions and hot peppers.
The best vegetable dish is probably aloo gobhi, a dry-braised potato and cauliflower casserole. It is the least oily of the vegetable entries, and the spice mixture--heavy on the ginger--is the most distinctive.
Other dishes, such as vegetable korma and bengan bharta, deserve fainter praise. The korma consists of diced, mixed vegetables and nuts cooked in a cream sauce and seems all sauce and richness. The bengan bharta, or sauteed roasted eggplant, leaves an unappetizing residue of orange-colored oil on the plate. Temper this richness with the good tandoori breads--onion kulcha and aloo paratha (stuffed with mashed potato), to name two--and the restaurant’s deliciously fluffy basmati rice.
Save room for the homemade desserts, too, such as fresh cheese balls in a lightly scented syrup ( gulab jamun ), or kheer, a creamy rice pudding made from thickened, boiled milk.
Rice pudding, how about that. Delhi meets deli, if you will.
Suggested dishes: assorted snacks, $2.95; tandoori chicken, $5.95/$10.95; lamb spinach, $7.95; chicken vindaloo, $6.95.
Delhi Palace, 22323 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 992-0913. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m., daily. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $20-$40.