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September 04, 2012

Alice Eats: India Palace

IMG_457969 Elliot Street, Brattleboro, 254-6143

Growing up outside New York City, my favorite flavors came from India. My earliest memory is of tandoori chicken.

When I moved to Vermont in 1998, I was nonplussed as to why something that seemed so effortless as preparing delicious, flavorful Indian food seemed so difficult within the borders of the Green Mountains.

My only hope was India Palace, a family-run restaurant in Brattleboro where I habitually stopped on my trips from Burlington to Connecticut. The food was flavorful, the meat was of good quality and the prices were astonishingly low.

IMG_4584I excitedly returned on Sunday for my first meal there in more than a decade. I found that India Palace wasn't bad, but it was no longer great, either. The food to price ratio, however, was still unbelievable.

I ordered the $21.95 tandoori dinner for one, which proved to be more of a tandoori dinner for three or four.

Immediately after ordering, I was presented with a cup of mulligatawny soup (above right). It smelled delicious, its cumin aroma sensuously filling the air. The lentil soup also had a spirited punch of acid, and as I swallowed it, black pepper lightly burned my throat.

IMG_4580My only complaints with the soup were that the the broth was uncharacteristically thin and that the spice came from black pepper rather than chiles. But these were minor quibbles. It tasted great and that was what mattered.

It was closely followed by this table full of food (right). The dessert-level-sweet coconut soup, dotted with nuts, and the disappointingly bland chicken tikka naan were my boyfriend's. The rest of that feast was all mine.

Buttery basmati rice and a giant pile of naan served as the starchy bases for the meal. While the rice was pleasant enough, it lacked the aromatic beauty I expect from a great Indian restaurant. The naan was suitably chewy in some places, but in others, it was thin, greasy and overly crisp.

IMG_4582A platter filled with stewed lentils was grayish, which wouldn't have mattered had it had any flavor besides salt.

With the meal option, I was allowed to choose any meat curry on the menu. I opted for the boti masala, lamb cooked in the tandoor, then stewed in a tomato-based sauce. The thin slices of meat were tender and pleasantly spiced. The tomato-butter sauce was salty and slightly sweet but lacked the acid and delicate smattering of spice I generally expect from the dish.

There was still the sizzling platter of meats fresh from the tandoor to sample as well. This was the greatest disappointment. My prior visits to India Palace had been filled with moist, flavorful tandoori chicken. This time, the meat was dry, mildly gamy and almost completely lacking in the subtle layer of gingery spice the dish's yogurt marinade should provide.

IMG_4585The chicken tikka, while still not quite up to snuff, was tastier and slightly more moist. That was lucky, because the seekh kabob was an unmitigated disaster. The little lamb sausages were inedibly dry, almost mummified.

After all that food, there was still dessert. I skipped my usual gulab jamun to try the gajar halwa, a dish I rarely see on menus. While relatively unadorned — the carrot pudding is little more than shredded carrots speckled with cashews and bathed in butter and sugar — the dessert hit the spot. Light and creamy, it was a refreshing end to the heavy meal.

I might not recommend India Palace as heartily as I once did. And it won't fulfill my need for great Indian in Vermont. But if I'm looking to fill up on the cheap in Southern Vermont, it will certainly remain on my radar.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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