Puttin' On Berlitz

Bombay Palace, 5775 West Bell, Glendale, 547-1000. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

What kind of diners go to the Valley's ethnic restaurants? I'd say there are four types:

1. Homesick natives, who yearn to eat home-country cooking in the company of other far-from-home countrymen, while gazing longingly at Tourist Board posters of the land they left behind.

2. The budget-challenged, who know that Third World fare, even in America, generally comes at Third World prices.

3. Culinary cosmopolitans, seekers of exotic dishes who roam immigrant neighborhoods searching for Iranian sheep's head, Laotian monkey meat and West African peanut stew.

4. Open-minded locals, curious folks who realize that chain restaurants and McFast-food parlors don't cover the entire range of human gastronomy.

No matter which category you fall into, this is a good time to be living in the Valley of the Sun, especially on the west side and in the East Valley. Immigrant neighborhoods there are flourishing, and so are immigrant restaurants. Luckily for us, that means getting good ethnic fare no longer requires visa applications, a series of inoculations and a 10-hour plane ride. Want proof? Check out Bombay Palace and Jamaica Miah Cafe, two recent additions to the ethnic-restaurant community that deliver an authentic taste of the homeland.

Bombay Palace occupies the shopping-center storefront that used to house a New Mexican restaurant, an enterprise that never quite caught on. But after just a few months, Bombay Palace already seems to be connecting with the neighborhood. I'm not surprised. As far as I'm aware, this is the only Indian restaurant in this part of town. But the food here is good enough to draw Indian-food fans from east of Central Avenue.

The place looks like it came right out of Central Casting, Ethnic Restaurant Division. The cliches are all in place: a poster of the Taj Mahal; wall hangings depicting the tragic story of Sohni and Mehiwal, a legendary pair of star-crossed Indian lovers; a sari-dressed hostess; a lunch-time buffet table at the back; and piped-in sitar music. Red linen tablecloths and pink cloth napkins inject Bombay Palace's only touch of elegance.

But nobody goes to an ethnic restaurant for the interior design experience. The kitchen here, under the direction of a branch of the family that operates Royal Taj, delivers all the elegance I'm interested in.

The menu looks exactly like the menu at every other Indian restaurant in town. (Back in New Delhi, I suspect there must be an Indian Ministry of Restaurants, which designates dishes available for export.) So don't expect to be surprised by anything new. What is surprising, however, is just how uniformly fresh and tasty everything is across the menu.

Dinner begins with a gratis plate of pappadam: crisp, cumin-scented lentil wafers that serve the same purpose as tortilla chips. Instead of salsa, you plunge them into a pair of lovely chutneys, a zippy mint chile and sweet mango.

Hundreds of Indian restaurant meals have convinced me that appetizers are rarely as good as the main dishes. My visits to Bombay Palace haven't done anything to alter my opinion. The vegetable pakora, an assortment of deep-fried veggies, and samosa, deep-fried pouches stuffed with minced lamb, both do creditable service. But you'll be annoyed you filled up on them once the other courses arrive.

Tandoori cooking is a basic skill that Bombay Palace has mastered. Everything that emerges from the superheated clay oven comes out beautifully, juicy, sizzling and with a bit of a crisp edge. Whether you opt for the chicken, ground lamb, skewered lamb, shrimp or cubes of mahimahi, all coated with spices and teamed with hissing onions, is strictly a matter of personal taste.

Karahai dishes, served in sizzling iron skillets, are just as compelling. I'm particularly partial to karahai shrimp, a half-dozen big critters cooked up in a luscious, ginger-spiked sauce embellished with tomatoes, onion and green pepper. Lamb fraizee, chunks of meat in a rich tomato gravy, is almost as good.

Bombay Palace's superb Shahjahani biryani is probably the best biryani plate in town. It's a fantastic mix of basmati rice--the fragrant, perfumed rice that's an essential element of Indian cuisine--and chicken, cashews and fried egg.

Indian cooks generally have a way with vegetarian dishes, and the chef here doesn't need any lessons. Bhindi masala features okra, aromatically tossed with a rackful of spices. Baigan bhartha headlines roasted eggplant, mashed to a pulp. Perhaps the most intriguing vegetarian option is navrattan curry, nine vegetables tossed with nuts and blended with a zesty cream sauce.

A key test of any Indian kitchen is the bread. Bombay Palace's is so smashing you may not want to eat anything else. Pudina paratha is a marvel: unleavened, layered whole wheat bread, coated with butter and studded with dried mint, cooked on a griddle. Poori, airy pillows of deep-fried dough, are perfect for wiping up sauces. And it's hard to resist making a meal out of paneer kulcha, naan (leavened white bread, slightly puffy and a bit chewy, cooked in the tandoor) crammed with mild Indian cheese.

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