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Restaurant Reviews

Ghee Whiz

You'd be forgiven if, just by reading the advertisement for the Palace, a two-month-old Indian restaurant on State Road 84 in Davie, you make some assumptions. You notice immediately the large type for the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Your eye then is drawn to the box that proclaims that "banquet hall facilities" are available for a variety of celebrations, including weddings, birthday parties, and bar and bat mitzvahs. And of course you note that, under the address, italicized information gives you what could be an unappetizing detail: "In the Winn-Dixie Plaza."

Your conclusion? The Palace provides cheap, mass-produced Indian food in a strip-mall setting with typical, lousy décor. Plus, the place is so desperate for customers they'll even cater to groups of pimply, American 13-year-olds who have just stumbled their way through pages of Hebrew in exchange for gifts of bonds that their parents will confiscate to pay for college. Simply put, no way can this eatery be any good.

Naturally, with a setup like that, you understand by now you'd be wrong. True, The Palace is set in the elbow of the long arm of a shopping center, and it does have banquet facilities that can accommodate up to 200 people. But expectations of same-old, same-old stop quite literally at the door.

For one thing, the restaurant is neither the sterile, overlighted rec room that often passes for an appropriate party setting nor the musty, carpeted, tapestry-draped dining room we're accustomed to dismissing in South Florida Indian restaurants. Instead, The Palace is a sleek, modern bistro, aglow with pink coral walls and open-construction wooden canopies over booths. The floor is tiled; the tables are laid with white cloths, and the dining room is separated by a solid, interior wall from the banquet hall. So although the two facilities share a main entrance and a kitchen, they don't compete; there's no overflow of invited guests or loud music to annoy paying diners. And, just in case you're wondering, the lunch buffet is only available on weekends, and the bar/bat mitzvah thing isn't only for Americans: Although it may come as a surprise, India's Jewish population dates back to the second century B.C.

Which is not to say The Palace doesn't have some flaws that afflict most new restaurants. On a recent evening, the wine we ordered wasn't in stock, and the kitchen was out of several dishes, including raita (yogurt dip), which is akin to a pizzeria running out of marinara (especially when even the menu bills it as "a must with every meal"). Lobster tail marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the tandoori had a distinct aroma of ammonia and flavor of iodine, two indications of spoilage one doesn't particularly enjoy encountering in any cuisine. Thanks to a recent Sun-Sentinel report about a Miami-based seafood company accused of selling salmonella-tainted lobster tails, we decided not to tempt fate and refused to eat more of it.

But, for the most part, The Palace offers a wide selection of dishes we South Floridians don't usually encounter and does a good job of defining them on the menu -- tandoori salad, for instance, has tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, pineapple, and button mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinegar, rock salt, and crushed chilies, the whole of which is then roasted in the tandoor oven. The menu also includes a glossary on the back with "some useful terms you should know," and one very important note: Contrary to some other Indian restaurants where food is either billed as "hot" (but then dumbed down for Americans) or the server asks you how you'd like it, the Palace starts nearly every dish off mild. If you want it spicier, the menu specifies that you need to do the asking.

That doesn't mean that preparations don't have loads of flavor, though, and hints of piquancy, particularly in the chutneys. Tomato-onion chutney and coriander chutney both possessed some zest, as did the peppery pappadam crackers we dipped in the sauces. Tamarind chutney also had a touch of zing, though this smooth purée was more sweet-tart than anything else. Still, a contrasting and cooling helping of raita would have been welcome here. Ditto with the naan, freshly baked and buttery, and a more savory version stuffed with minced lamb, two of the more than a dozen bread offerings.

As exemplified by the bread category alone, the menu is indeed extensive, presenting so many options it can become confusing. I'd narrow down the field by avoiding the fried appetizers. I appreciated the fact that the vegetable pakora were prepared as separate rather than mixed vegetables -- two fritters with potatoes, two with cauliflower, and another pair with spinach -- but they were uniformly greasy. Fish amritsari was slightly less oily, though the deep-fried tilapia fillets, a regional specialty from Punjab, were a bit mealy from overcooking.

Entrées, with the exception of the lobster, proved to be highlights. I was particularly fond of crab masala, which boasted both freshness and savory flair. The shredded crabmeat had been thoroughly mixed but not drenched with sauce, and the expanse of crab was interrupted only by dots of tomatoes and peppers. The aloo gobi, chosen from a tempting compendium of vegetarian dishes, also impressed us with its restraint. Despite the aromatic, gingery sauce, I actually could taste the fresh cauliflower and roasted potatoes that shared marquee billing as main ingredients.

Although I intended to steer clear of standard tandoori and chicken dishes -- I wanted something more green and vegetable-driven, like the shrimp jalfrezi (tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and broccoli), which the restaurant didn't have in stock -- I allowed myself to be talked into the more familiar butter chicken. "It's our best dish," the waitress promised, and the follow-through confirmed it: Choice pieces of boneless poultry had been roasted in the clay oven, then stewed in a pleasant tomato sauce that had been cut with ghee, or Indian butter. This creamy gravy in particular was delicious over the pullao that came alongside. We also were delighted, instead of relying on a waiter to bring us more, to be able to serve ourselves the saffron-scented basmati rice from the copper pots on the table.

Despite my love for Indian cuisine, which almost always results in a satiation that doesn't permit dessert, my occasional weakness for gulab jamun kicked in, and I ordered the fried milk balls -- to my ultimate disappointment. Overly soaked with rose-flavored syrup, the doughnuts were soggy and grainy. I also didn't care for the texture of a flowery, cardamom-heavy vermicelli kheer, a sort of stringy pasta pudding along the lines (or should I say grains) of rice pudding. The Palace doesn't carry mango ice cream or sorbet, unfortunately, but those looking for that common fruity flavor can find it in a thirst-quenching mango lassi.

Otherwise, you'll see very little mango, along with the other items we stereotypically associate with Indian restaurants -- such as pictures of elephants and red carpeting. Some preparations can be bettered, and seafood can be fresher, but at least in intention the Palace has modernity as a mantra. Whether you're celebrating the daily ritual of dining or the once-in-a-lifetime event of, say, a bar mitzhvah, The Palace provides a contemporary space for it. What else is there to say but l'chaim?

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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