Review Tandoori dream

The spices of India Palace are a delicious mystery

Fish Tandoori, Baingan Bhartha, and saffron rice (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Open the door and the impact is immediate: sexy, exotic, earthy, intense. The smells of India Palace are the ultimate advertisement and, given that there was a line out the door for much of a Saturday evening, the entire parking lot at Fredericksburg and Wurzbach must have been in a state of serious temptation.

The buffet, offered at lunch and dinner, accounts for the lion's share of the aromas and the customers. Generally, I'm a snob about buffets of any ethnic persuasion. It's not that I'm deluded by the thought of the chef cooking exclusively for me, but rather that the food is at least a little fresher. But Indian food holds well and the buffet line is undeniably efficient, especially at lunch, where time often counts for more. At dinner, when a full menu is available, I hold my ground: no buffets.

We began with an assorted platter of appetizers, assuming that pakoras and samosas would be much better straight from the kitchen. The vegetable pakoras were certainly fresh, but not necessarily impressive. Consisting of shards rather than discernible chunks or slices of potato and onion, they were more about the chickpea batter than the vegetables, and I missed the eggplant altogether. In contrast, the chicken version was identifiable but bland. The vegetable samosas, neat, empanada-like packets enclosing lightly spiced potato and peas, were much more successful. And all benefitted from a very judicious dipping in the incendiary cilantro-mint chutney. You are warned. The tamarind version, on the other hand, is benign.

Somar Bhangay and Umesh Savand check out the buffet.

Keeping the buffet line charged doesn't seem to slow the kitchen down for menu orders; despite a full house, dishes arrive in good time, and with a flourish if fish tandoori is on the agenda. Served sizzling and spitting on a fajita-like platter, the white fish was kept warm by the cast iron and, sturdy and thick, was no worse for the heat 20 minutes later. Marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the clay tandoor oven, the fish has an appealing, light crust. Sautéed onions, crisp bell peppers, and tomatoes are festive accompaniments, and a little squeeze-it-yourself lemon adds the perfect grace note.

Totally different from the less-is-more fish, the Chicken Korma is a symphony of seeds, spices, nuts, and raisins, all variously roasted, ground, and blended with yogurt to make a creamy sauce that is mild but far from faint; it rocks in its own quiet way and, as a result, the chicken is almost unnecessary. Perfect rice, flecked with cumin seed, makes an altogether winning sidekick.

India Palace

8440 Fredericksburg
& 5pm-10pm daily
Price range $7.95-13.95
Credit cards accepted
Bathrooms are not
wheelchair accessible
Indian restaurants are one of the few local resources for vegetarians. With the array of available dishes at India Palace, there's reason to rejoice, especially if you order the Baingan Bartha, a concoction featuring tandoor-baked eggplant with more unspecified herbs and spices. The flavor is slightly smoky, and the sauce blend (I'd guess cardamom, cumin, turmeric ... plus onion, tomato, and who knows what else) is enigmatically intriguing in the manner of much Indian cuisine. Despite the difficulty of pinning down specifics, the overall flavor is very good. This dish would be great with a side order of any of the Indian breads such as nan or paratha. India Palace's potato-stuffed Aloo Paratha, however, is oily and almost raw tasting. Not good.

With a dish such as the Lamb Vindaloo, especially in a super-spicy version such as India Palace's, the heat can overpower the ol' spice symphony, at least initially. After the numbness sets in, it's a little easier to concentrate on the complexity of the dish. Oh, the lamb is fine, too, but the potato slices are almost as important; they mitigate heat magnificently.

As does kulfi, the classic Indian pistachio ice cream. Sorry, but not here: India Palace's kulfi is bland and uninteresting and has only the cold going for it. The mango malwa, on the other hand, is a frozen delight, despite an apparent lack of almonds. Try it instead. And, on your way to the car, you might want to pause at the Indian store a couple of doors down. Checking out a Bollywood movie will keep the spice-engendered glow going.

If you've ordered takeout, the movie might be obligatory.