Metairie: 3322 N. Turnbull.
The first long-term Indian restaurant to open in the New Orleans did so in 1982. At this writing (June 2013), we have only five Indian places–an all-time high. Clearly the thrilling cuisine of the subcontinent is having a hard time catching on in these parts.
The India Palace in its peak years in the 1990s was as good an ethnic restaurant as has ever opened in these precincts. Tables and booths on two levels are comfortable, and the room is bright. Indian music might be playing, or it might be classical of jazz. The wait staff were mostly local people, and the Indian-heritage members spoke English well (with a British accent). They were good not only at taking care of your needs but explaining the food understandably.
And the food was fresh, appealing to the eye (not a strong suit of Indian cooking), inexpensive. The lunch buffet (almost universal among Indian restaurants the world over) was another attraction. All of it was delicious and habit-forming for those who tried it even a couple of times.
For years, even though it didn’t fire off a trend, the India Palace did a pretty good business. It lasted longer than any of the dozen other restaurants that operated at this address before or since. It took Katrina to close it.
Then and now, what keeps all but a small minority of New Orleans eaters from digging Indian food is the widespread, erroneous perception that Indian food equals curry. Period. In a way, that’s true, because the word “curry” as used by Indian chefs refers to any cooked food with a sauce. By that definition, most of the menu here and in any other Indian restaurant is indeed. But only a small number of Indian dishes have the flavor that most people would identify as curry.
A similar issue involves pepper. Some dishes in Indian cookery are as hot as any in the world. But they too are a minority in the widely diverse palette of Indian flavors. I’ve always thought that if everyone knew that not all Indian food is curry-flavored or highly inflamed with pepper, it would be much more popular.
Not that the food was that strange to begin with. You ate chicken, beef (yes!), lamb, shrimp, fish, potatoes, spinach, onions, cucumbers, lentils, red beans, and bread. The tastes, however, were exotic, with unidentifiable, aromatic spices. Even the rice was distinctive: basmati, which has a flavor and aroma all its own, enough that a first-timer would insist that those qualities had to come from other ingredients.
The most accessible part of the India Palace’s menu came from the tandoor, an appliance of ancient design. It’s a clay pot, set into a counter, with charcoal burning at the bottom. It gets very hot in there–800 degrees or higher. It has a lot in common with modern Big Green Egg grills. Meats and seafood on long spits roasted very quickly, the flavors concentrated by the intense heat.
Meanwhile, in the same oven, bread doughs are slapped up against the inside wall of the tandoor, there to bake to a crustiness not unlike that of pizza. This bread–called naan–is one of the most habit-forming parts of the Indian dining experience. You’d scarf it up faster than you do the garlic bread at Commander’s.
A specialty called biryani came to be described as “Indian jambalaya.” It was much lighter than the Cajun version, made with more delicate flavors, but enjoyable for all the same reasons. The India Palace served biryani in a grand way, in a special pan set over a fire at the table. You could get it with any ingredients you wanted; it was impossible to go wrong.
One of the versions if biryani (and almost everything else on the menu) was vegetarian. Those were among the restaurant’s best dishes, and the current vogue for vegetarian dishes was a long way from starting. (Of course, vegetarianism is as common in India as hamburger-scarfing is here.) The two best were saag paneer–creamed, curried spinach with homemade cheese–and the mutter paneer, a stew of green peas and tomatoes. That last one was an astonishingly delicious dish.
The India Palace was, in its day, advanced beyond other local Indian restaurants. For one thing, they made the unique, crisp South Indian crepes called dosa. These were stuffed with all sorts of things that taste better than they sound, and served with an assortment of sauces and chutneys, some alarmingly hot.
The way I understand it, there was a change in management and perhaps ownership around 2000, with a decline in the goodness of the food and (to an even greater degree) the service. It wasn’t a shocking downturn, but enough to make it even harder to attract new customers. After Katrina flooded the area, I kept hearing rumors that the India Palace would shortly return to business. If it ever did, I missed it. The next thing I knew, in around 2008 the place reopened as a too-hip Korean place called Gimchi. Korean food is even less well known than Indian food was. After a couple of years, it became the new location of Sid-Mar’s. Now it’s Andy’s Bistro. I have no idea what happened to the India Palace’s people.