by Lauren McAllister

A mark of cosmopolitan cities is the abundance of foods of many different ethnic traditions. Once when I was in Seattle, I had a sudden craving for chicken vindaloo. The reasons for my obscure but near-manic craving became more apparent a little less than nine months later. Nonetheless, it was almost 2 pm on a Saturday and we were driving through the Ballard neighborhood. Within minutes after I had delicately voiced my craving, my relieved husband spotted an Indian restaurant, just finishing up the lunch buffet. I ran in and came out within boxes of spicy curries, juicy tandoori chicken, fragrant basmati rice and cool cucumber salad. Nearby were Thai restaurants, Italian restaurants and delis. A world of restaurants in just one of Seattle's many neighborhoods.

Spokane is moving in the right direction, too, with the recent opening of several new Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. But until recently there was only one Indian restaurant between Seattle and who knows how far to the east -- Minneapolis?! That has changed with the opening of Delhi Palace on east Sprague. "Palace" may be a bit of a stretch for the restaurant's current digs -- a remodeled fast food building. But the tables are nicely appointed with green cloths covered in glass. Oversize cloth napkins add a gracious touch. When we first arrived on a recent weekend evening, there were only a couple of tables being used. Within half an hour, though, the dining room was filling up, and the earnest staff was hustling to keep up.

The menu at Delhi Palace is expansive, helpfully divided into sections. A basket of warm papad (often called papadum), a sweet tamarind sauce and a mint chutney were provided for us to munch on while we perused the menu. Papad is a very thin, cracker-type bread, made of lentils, and with a bit of spiciness. We considered the vegetable samosa ($3), a deep-fried, vegetable-filled pastry, but instead decided to try the samosa chaat ($6). This was a very unusual and wonderful dish. The hot samosas were broken apart and covered in a spicy garbanzo bean mixture, placed on a bed of chutneys and garnished with dollops of fresh yogurt. Our server instructed us to stir the whole thing up and then serve it on our own appetizer plates. It was a unique sensation -- the rich, still-crisp and warm pastries combined with the earthy, spicy beans, all offset by the cooling chutneys and yogurt.

Choosing entrees at the Delhi Palace is a somewhat bewildering process because there are so many options. We avoided having to make a selection of just one meat by opting for the Tandoori surprise ($15). This was a big sizzling platter of meats cooked in the tandoor, an Indian clay oven. The meats are marinated in mixtures of yogurt and spices and then cooked at high temperatures. Tandoori chicken is on the bone, and we got a big juicy drumstick and thigh on our platter. Chicken tikka is boneless chicken breast similarly marinated. The tandoori chicken was my favorite, with the rich dark meat remaining more moist than the smaller pieces of boneless chicken breast in the chicken tikka. The boti kebab, made with cubes of lamb, was even better, with the spice mixture complemented especially by the rich and tender lamb. The sheesh kebab of skewered, minced lamb looked something like a sausage link minus the casing and was tasty, but a bit on the dry side. There were also two tasty tandoori shrimp thrown in. The platter of meats would easily feed three or even four people, and it was fun to taste all of the tandoori options.

Next we ventured into the chicken curries. I was tempted by the chicken saag ($9), a chicken in spiced cream sauce and spinach. And of course the chicken vindaloo, with its curry sauce and potatoes ($9) also beckoned. Our server recommended the chicken tikka masala ($10) which he said was one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. But since we were already trying the chicken tikka on the tandoori platter, we decided to try the chicken goa curry ($10), mainly on the allure of the coconut milk in the spicy sauce. This was a wonderful dish, served over the saffron-flavored basmati rice, or scooped up on a piece of the light naan bread that accompanied our meal. The elegantly flavored sauce left a bit of heat behind while allowing all of the complex flavors to shine through.

Because many people in India are vegetarians, including our server -- who explained his difficulty recommending any of the chicken dishes -- there is an extensive vegetarian section on the menu. These are some of the most wonderful dishes, some including paneer -- a homemade cheese. We tried the baingan bartha, our server's favorite dish on the menu, with mashed, baked eggplant cooked with onions, tomatoes and spices ($7). The baingan bartha was delicately spiced and silky rich. Added texture came from peas and chunks of fresh tomato. It was truly delightful with the naan.

Even with just three entrees and an appetizer, we had four boxes of food to take home. And we didn't even get to venture into the biriyanis -- saffron rice dishes with various add-ins, like chicken, shrimp or lamb or the daal (lentil) soups or entrees. A wonderful way to get acquainted with more of the menu is to take advantage of the daily lunch buffet. From 11 am to 3 pm, seven days a week, and for just $6 per person, you can sample 15 different items, including basmati rice, lentils, vegetarian and meat curries, tandoori chicken, nann, salads and even desserts.

On the night we visited, the staff appeared a bit overwhelmed by a sudden rush, and a couple of times dishes were delivered to the wrong table, only to be whisked away. Our server was pleasant, but wasn't too helpful in selecting a nice assortment of dishes. "What do you like?" is not all that helpful a response to a request for suggestions on what to order. At the risk of seeming hopelessly provincial, perhaps some "combination" dinners would help newcomers sample a pleasant mix of dishes. On the other hand, the menu is affordable enough to allow some experimentation.

Delhi Palace is a wonderful addition to the world of eating in Spokane. But beware of any cravings for chicken vindaloo.

Publication date: 05/22/03

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