By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
The massive and beautifully decorated space that Bombay Exotic Cuisine of India abruptly abandoned two months ago is now inhabited by India Palace. The restaurant’s fast move from its smaller, nearby address on University Avenue into these much larger digs is both a welcome and unexpected sight to Hillcrest diners.
Aside from rumors that Bombay was pushed out because of high rent, nobody really knows why it vanished. Equally mysterious is that staffers at India Palace repeatedly denied they were taking over the triple-storefront structure, even days before they actually did. (I heard several weeks ago from a couple of business owners in the area that India Palace had been eyeing the property.)
Two visits and three phone calls later, I still haven’t been able to get the 411 from India Palace’s ownership to learn why they moved and what fresh plans might be in the pipeline. Secrecy prevails among everyone I’ve spoken to there.
But I did come away content over the Palace’s lunch buffet, offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily within the restaurant’s chandelier-adorned atmosphere. The cost is $12 per person.
Visiting as a group of five, the repast featured about 14 hot and cold dishes, including a noteworthy shredded cabbage salad accented with mustard seeds and light vinaigrette. Crisp, cool and snappy tasting, most of us loaded up on seconds.
Parked alongside was a bowl of iceberg lettuce housing hard-to-find tomatoes and cucumbers. Romaine is normally used, but it was missing in action because of the recent E. coli outbreak. The choice of dressings are ranch (if you must) or heavenly mint chutney, which offers such a spicy depth of flavor, you’ll want to drizzle it onto everything, including the charred naan bread servers bring to your table and the somewhat parched vegetable samosas and pakoras you pluck from the chafing pans.
The chutney, along with saffron-kissed chicken biryani rice (the best I’ve had in a while) were the spiciest items in the entire lineup, although not quite sweat-inducing.
Which brings me to two of my favorite Indian dishes that taste exceptional when given some chili heat: butter chicken and chana masala. The buffet carried each. Both were expertly constructed but tailored to the tenderest of palates.
I’m guessing their mildness must have also come as a disappointment to the majority of Indian-descent patrons occupying the dining room on this particular afternoon. Nearly every person I’ve ever met from the subcontinent can withstand extraordinary levels of capsaicin from hot curries and chilies.
Nonetheless, the butter-laced sauce camouflaging the boneless chicken pieces was electric-red from various curries and luxuriously flavorful from hints of garlic, turmeric and perhaps ginger.
The chana masala — a vegetarian go-to consisting of garbanzo beans braised in tomato sauce, curry and spices — offered robust flavor and a coveted soft texture from proper slow cooking of the beans. It was while loading my plate with this dish of street-food origin that I discovered generic hot sauce further down the line. I dabbled a few drops onto my plate and never went back to it again.
Another meatless item was mushroom korma, a creamy mild curry that received unanimous thumbs up from the vegetarians in our group. They also lavished praise on the aloo gobi, a mix of steamed cauliflower and potatoes coated in oil and Indian spices.
I was too distracted by the lamb meatballs to try those dishes. The little orbs sat in a lake of thick brown gravy likely punctuated with fresh mint, coriander and onions. Along with the butter chicken, they steered me into fits of gluttony that ended in a couch-worthy food coma when I got home. The large amounts of downy basmati rice I used for soaking up the curry sauces didn’t help either.
Much like Bombay, the atmosphere at India Palace is cushy and Zen-like. The soothing waterfall in front remains intact, as does theatrical lighting and Bollywood videos playing on a few flatscreens and extending onto smaller screens in the restrooms.
It’s really one of the loveliest dining rooms in Hillcrest, albeit showy. My only hope is that the new tenant can handle the expansive layout financially and operationally so that the intoxicating scent of curries wafting from the open facade doesn’t suddenly go poof again.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.