PORTLAND – There’s something comforting about going to a casual restaurant that seems a little fancy.
Take, for instance, India Palace on Congress Street. As soon as you come in, you’re greeted with soft Indian music and an Indian decor that by American standards certainly seems elegant, with lots of gold trim and delicate patterns on table linens and wall hangings.
And the food itself seems like comfort food with an international flavor. There are fragrant soups, a half-dozen or so Indian breads and main courses that consist mostly of flavorful and rich sauces served over rice.
To me, having a good Indian main dish is sort of like having a very exotic chicken pot pie (but with lots of warm spice and different meats) over rice.
When I recently went to India Palace for lunch on a cold day, I started with a bowl of tomato soup ($3). It was labeled as tomato soup, which sounds pretty pedestrian, but the ingredients and the taste were anything but. It was made with fresh tomatoes, ginger, onion and garlic.
Other soups on the menu for $3 include dal shorba (split peas and lentils), coconut and mulligatawny (lentils, tomatoes and chicken broth).
For a main course, I picked from the lunch special, which included a selection of main courses with meat or fish and rice for $6.95 each. That’s a comforting price, especially for the amount of food you get.
I chose the lamb patiala with chunks of lamb and fresh vegetables in a cream sauce with Indian spices. The lamb was tender — fall-apart-on-your-fork tender. And the cream sauce was thick, like in a stew.
It came in its own little serving dish, with another serving dish for the rice. There was probably enough rice for two people, and certainly enough of the lamb dish to satisfy someone with a big appetite.
Other main course dishes on the lunch menu for $6.95 include chicken curry, chicken mushroom, lamb curry, shrimp curry, keema mutter (ground lamb with peas, coriander and ginger), chicken saag (chicken with spinach) and chicken tikka masala (smoked, shredded chicken in tomato sauce with fenugreek).
Also on the lunch menu are a variety of vegetarian dishes for $6.95 each. Of these, the ones that caught my eye were sag pakora (a vegetable fritter with ginger, garlic and spinach) and palak aloo (potatoes, spinach, light cream, cinnamon and spices).
The appetizer and bread sections of the menu offer lots of inexpensive options. There are samosas (deep-fried shredded potato turnovers) for $3.25, and breads such as various kinds of naan — stuffed with ground lamb or garlic, for instance — also for $3.95.
There’s also an extensive dinner menu, but most are slightly over the $10 price guideline followed for this feature.
But for lunch, the place is not only affordable, but the incredible attentiveness of the wait staff is comforting too. My water glass was refilled almost as soon as I took a sip.
My order was taken quickly, my soup came within 60 seconds, and my check was brought as soon as my plate was empty.
For a workday lunch, knowing you can get in and out quickly is a comfort as well.
But India Palace’s food and atmosphere would be a comfort no matter what the rest of your day is like.
The staff of GO anonymously samples meals for about $10.