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TANDOOR VITTLES

Delhi Palace, 5050 East McDowell, Phoenix, 244-8181. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Remember the old commercial, "Is it true blondes have more fun"? And the woman who beseeched Clairol, "If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde"? Over many years of ethnic noshing, I've concluded that if I were stuck with only one cuisine to live on, my request would be simple: Let me eat it as an Indian. For all the senses, the food of India is just more fun.

But what's true in general is not always confirmed in the particular. Despite Clairol's claims, there are lonely, unhappy blondes. And I've visited several Indian restaurants that have made me proud to be an American.

So a couple of trips to local purveyors of Indian cuisine had me excited but wary.

On these treks, we persuaded our Indian friends Anu and Ratan to come along. Since Anu is one of the planet's great cooks, this couple rarely bothers going out to Indian restaurants. They're fussy and knowledgeable, useful traits for our expedition.

Our dining room at Delhi Palace recalled the flavor of a Punjab frontier outpost. Painted arches, domes and turrets filled one wall. Mirrored panels lined the opposite wall, above some wood paneling that looked like the relic of a previous gustatory incarnation. In high-backed wicker chairs with plush, red cushions, we sat in the comfort once enjoyed by minor colonial officials. Pink curtains at the front shut out the grungy McDowell parking lot, while unobtrusive piped-in sitar music and an illuminated batik of the Taj Mahal set the mood.

The waiter brought a basket of papadum as soon as we sat down. These are crisp, spicy wafers, usually made from lentils and chickpeas ground to a fine flour, and flecked with black pepper and garlic. Washed down with Taj Mahal, a potent Indian beer, they made other appetizers superfluous.

Instead, we decided to save our money and eating space for breads, rice and main dishes.

While we waited, the universal topic of in-laws came up. Ratan mentioned that his mother-in-law never speaks to him. Must have been quite an argument, I remarked. Nope, just standard operating procedure in the countryside. Since women marry as young as 13 and have children, a bride's mother is young enough to be a rival for the affections of her son-in-law. The antidote to jealousy: Mother-in-law speaks to the daughter's husband only through the daughter. "Would Ratan like some more rice?" she'd ask Anu, who would pass along the message. He'd answer yes, and Anu would relay the response. India was acquiring charms I'd never suspected.

My reverie was interrupted by trays full of food. Indian food, like Chinese food, is meant to be shared, and we ordered enough to share with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The boneless chicken tikka masala was outstanding. The fowl was cooked in a tandoor, a tall, cylindrical clay oven. It's preheated to searingly high temperatures so the breast meat seals almost immediately. The juices don't get lost and the chicken is unbelievably tender. Here it was swimming in a sauce of several exotic spices that Europeans risked their lives to search out 500 years ago. Without coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg, Indian cuisine would have all the zip of a Sunday Midwestern meat loaf dinner. And since we asked for it hot, we got plenty of green chiles, too.

Equally tasty was lamb pasanda newabi, a milder dish featuring fork-tender lamb in a yogurt-curry sauce. Ground cashew nuts were also blended in, adding their fragrance and calories.

Each of these dishes requires bread or rice as a vehicle for transporting the sauces. And second-rate vehicles make the trip a lot less pleasant.

Happily, Delhi Palace's rice and bread meet or exceed industry standards. The fluffily separated basmati rice, an incredibly perfumed long-grain variety grown in the Himalayan foothills, came studded with whole cumin seeds. It seems unfair that basmati and Uncle Ben's are both called "rice." Naan is tandoori-cooked leavened bread, hot and chewy, and we ordered ours slathered with bits of pungent garlic. Another good choice was paratha, a heavy, layered, whole-wheat bread cooked on a cast-iron skillet. After a meal with those fresh-baked beauties, the plastic-wrapped mush offered by supermarkets has all the appeal of Lincoln Savings bonds. Not all plates reached the heights of the chicken and lamb, however. Sag shrimp is saut‚ed shrimp in chopped spinach. The shrimp lacked the taste of just-from-the-sea freshness, and the dish seemed a bit dry, without the fragrance and complexity of the others.

Bengan bhartha, pulpy, roasted, seasoned eggplant, usually has me whooping ecstatically, since eggplant is one of my favorite foods. But while the version here was good, it wasn't irresistible and remained unfinished.

Anu and Ratan were delighted to see malai kofta on the menu. It's a difficult, time-consuming dish to make, they said, one they never prepare at home. It's mixed vegetables and Indian-style cottage cheese served up in a ball, in a creamy, mildly spiced sauce. Although tasty, Delhi Palace's recipe delivered little of the precious cheese, and seemed heavy on the potato. Like the bengan bhartha, it didn't quite merit superlatives. As with most non-Western desserts, Indian sweets are an acquired taste. Gulab jamun are deep-fried balls of cream floating in syrup sweet enough to strip the enamel from your teeth. These, however, tasted like they'd been sitting around for a while, and none of us could get very excited over them. Ras malai are little patties of fresh cheese served in pistachio-dotted cream. One taste here was enough, too, for everyone.

Indian meals end with Indian tea, a milky, lip-smacking, loose-leaf brew heavy on sugar and cardamom. After a round of this heady drink, you may find Lipton tea bags disappearing from your grocery list, along with Uncle Ben's and Wonder bread.

Golden Palace, 4320 West Thomas, Phoenix, 352-1100. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Newly opened Golden Palace, the west side's first Indian restaurant, lines its walls and archways with mirrors. In fact, "mirrors" is the operative word here.

It would take the practiced eye of a textual specialist to distinguish Golden Palace's menu from Delhi Palace's. The offerings, even the descriptions, are virtually identical. When I asked Delhi Palace if they were behind this place, I was told darkly, "Anyone can copy a menu." At Golden Palace, I was cheerfully informed that management had once worked at Delhi Palace.

Could they cook as well as they could copy?
I thought we'd never find out. We had a Third World wait for food that had Anu and Ratan fidgeting even more than my wife and I. (Twenty years in America have corroded their patience, while five years abroad built ours up.) As a peace offering, our dismayed host offered a second, gratis, 22-ounce Golden Eagle beer. And we had papadum to forestall total starvation.

It seems the regular cook hadn't bothered to come in, and there were more customers than the stand-in could handle. But the cook finally showed up, and eventually, so did our food.

Maybe hunger is the best seasoning, because some of the dishes seemed astonishingly good. Everyone raved over the malai kofta, the two balls redolent with cheese, resting in a superb sauce thickened with aromatic ground cashews.

There were cheers, too, for sag shrimp. A hefty portion of juicy, medium-size shrimp arrived surrounded by creamy chopped spinach. The mild sauce let the shrimp flavor come through without overwhelming it.

The bengan bhartha completely satisfied my eggplant lust, aided by three wonderful chutneys: a fiery hot lime pickle; a tart and sweet tamarind sauce, scorned by our friends but not us; and a cup of sweet mango. But the other dishes somehow lost something on the journey across the Black Canyon Freeway. The tandoori-seared chicken tikka masala was too bland, seasoned with too light a hand. None of the dishes here, in fact, had much zing. Perhaps they were toned down for tender west-side palates.

Lamb pasanda newabi suffered from a fatal defect: chewy lamb. If the lamb doesn't fall apart at the first touch of a fork, no amount of expertise with the yogurt and ground-nut curry can save it.

The biggest disappointments were the bread and rice, the showpieces of Indian cuisine. The naan and paratha were merely okay, lacking the taste and texture that usually make me want to skip the meal and gorge on bread alone. The basmati rice, meanwhile, was slightly overcooked and a bit sticky, provoking disapproving shakes of the head from our companions. The desserts, too, came up short. The golub jamun seemed a bit stale, and the thin syrup didn't kick in much of a sugar rush. Ras gulla, a Bengali specialty, are cheese balls in syrup. But Bengali-born Ratan complained that the shredded-coconut coating was inauthentic. And for this nonpurist, the flavor appeal was low. Best was ras malai, but only aficionados should bother running up a bill on these sweets. For Valley diners in search of ethnic adventure, Indian food can be a refreshing alternative to linguini with clam sauce or moo shu pork. It's the easiest way to experience India without getting vaccinated.

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Indian Delhi Palace Cuisine of India

5104 E. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85008

602-244-8181

www.indiandelhipalace.com


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