India PalaceLocations in La Jolla and Hillcrest
The constant vigilance of my readers-three, at last count (Hi, Dad!)-never ceases to amaze me. For instance, culinary detective E. R. Debbs of North Park astutely pointed out that prosciutto and gravlax are not, in fact, cheeses. (Good work, sir! Perhaps next you could translate "solipsistic dilettante tosspot" for me.) Other eagle-eyed readers have noticed that my humble column no longer features a smarmy fork rating, wherein I reduced a dining experience to a numerical score on a five-fork scale.
Before my fans take to the streets in protest, perhaps I should offer an explanation. It all started when La Jolla's flagship Indian restaurant, India Palace, opened a second location in my neighborhood. Curious, I invited my old friend MK Gandhi along for a much-needed free meal.
The new Palace has neither the space nor Easter-egg décor of the original. But they do amplify the fountain in the foyer and project it subliminally along with their upbeat Bollywood soundtrack. At 11:30 a.m., naan flatbread came to the table steaming right out of the oven. Even for a lightweight like MK, who sometimes answers to "Fats," the $8.95 buffet is a bargain. That day, the crowd followed right behind me, but I beat the rush to the line, picking all the golden raisins and cashews-nice touch-off the basmati rice. I settled back into our booth with a plate piled high with sublime tandoori chicken and potatoes with aloo broccoli.
"Tell me this, Fats," I said. ""Aloo' means "potato,' so this dish is called, "potatoes with potato broccoli'?"
He murmured something about acceptance. I noticed that the potatoes were slightly underdone, so they wouldn't turn to mush on the buffet. Nice. A mushroom dish mixed abundant button mushrooms with the occasional slices of portobello, in a sweet and spicy spinach cream sauce. MK reached across the table, and, instinctively, I speared him with my fork. He just looked at me with that blank stare. I turned to my pork meatballs in a thin curry sauce.
"I wonder how many times I could go back for more," I mused.
Meanwhile, MK was picking at a thimbleful of tender but still al dente black-eyed peas and a tiny dollop of cool cucumber-yogurt raita. "We are all of us, who gorge at the buffet, thieves," he whispered. "For the buffet contains enough to feed us all."
Normally, I would slap him upside the dome, but that day it didn't seem appropriate. I started to think of that gurgling fountain as the quiet yet insistent gurgling of my stream of consciousness. I pondered my buffet plate, a mish-mash of intermingled dishes and sauces, sloppy, chaotic, unpredictable and wonderful. I want to make bad, heart-felt analogies.
India Palace specializes in the cuisine of North India, which some consider the comfort food of Indian cuisine. Thus, the doughy pakoras and sambosas appetizers, a thousand variations on fresh-cooked naan-like spinach-stuffed (crisp and nutty), or Kashmiri, stuffed with raisins, cherries, cashews and pistachios (not as fruitcake as it sounds, the bread smeared with a wonderful, mildly sweet paste). The overly mild cheese in the paneer pakoras had only the barest of mint stuffing. The same cheese appears in a few entrees, too, in tofu-like cubes.
"Why must you always focus on negatives?" Gandhi whined.
"Me, Fats?" I said, my mouth full of tender chicken tikki masala. The yogurt and tomato sauce was so sweet and creamy, I wanted to cry. "I'm not the one walking around Southern Cali in bare feet with a gym towel draped over my shoulders."
"What has this to do with anything?" he raised his voice. "Your reviews, they are arbitrary, and often irrelevant."
The raita and other sauces are designed to bring spicy dishes back to earth, but that isn't a worry here. The kitchen will prepare your dishes to your liking (mild, medium or spicy), but even the spicy is in no danger of searing your tongue. My delicious prawn curry was seven hefty and tender prawns buried in ample, thick curry sauce, but my sissy western palate easily handled the spiciest setting. We put a dollop on the lamb with split garbanzo, but only for a little extra flavor. Even better for an added zing, try the mixed pickle, a crazy salty bowl of pickled lemon, mango, ginger root and lotus root. Not for the squeamish.
"Furthermore, the fork ratings are arbitrary and lazy," MK said. "They must go."
I let his criticisms wash over me.
"And you must seek out the positive, the good and true," Gandhi continued.
I nodded. The fountain gurgled. Everything made sense. "I'm thinking about becoming a vegetarian, Fats."
"Really?" he blinked at me from behind his little Lennon glasses.
I pushed the bill toward him. "Let's not get carried away."
Hey, forward that one about the super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis to cityeat@SDcity beat.com.