2570 Cleveland Ave. N., Roseville; (651) 631-1222
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily; lunch buffet 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily.
David K. of St. Paul writes: "I have a couple of questions for you. Do you usually work incognito or talk to management when you visit restaurants? What happens if you write a bad review? It would be nice to hear from you, but if I don't, I understand."
Well, Mr. K., you're in for it now. This is my life: Every day I rise, grab a hand mirror, gaze into the limpid pools of my eyes, and dwell on the beauty therein. Thus strengthened I hack through my mail, horrified at this newly patented vegetable, aghast at that new NFL-logo-emblazoned casserole dish. Then it's back to the limpid pools, and back again to the press releases about how Americans gain 10 pounds every winter. Really? Perhaps they don't spend enough time stuffing "Broccolini" into "Packerware." Back to bed.
As you can see, this takes all day. Sometimes two days. When I finally accumulate enough strength to leave the house, I venture forth to terrorize the good Twin Citians who run and staff restaurants. I descend upon their establishments incognito, large parties in tow, and order as many dishes as I can order without arousing suspicion.
For example, my first night at India Palace I got the Palace Platter ($7.95), a large assortment of deep-fried appetizers including lamb and vegetable samosas, paneer pakora (the Punjabi version of deep-fried cheese), and chicken pakora (Punjabi chicken fingers). I also sampled several delicious flatbreads: peshawari naan ($2.50), stuffed with crushed nuts and ground raisins; garlic naan ($2.25); and a thin, whole-wheat roti ($1.75) with a nice, rough-hewn texture.
I also summoned bangan bhartha ($8.95), a savory, admirable dish of charcoal-baked eggplant peeled and combined with tomatoes, peas, and onions; chicken tikka, boneless chicken chunks in a yogurt-and-ground-cashew sauce, creamy as pudding; chana masala ($6.95), a lively chickpea-and-tomato stew. We rounded out our meal with a cereal-bowl-sized portion of cool raita ($2.25), a yogurt sauce with cucumbers and tomatoes, and pickles ($1.50)--carrots, onions, cauliflower, and other vegetables in a spicy mustard-oil and vinegar base.
Having closely examined and painstakingly sampled all of the above, I note mentally that India Palace's food is very good. I also note that the dining room is nearly empty--though, admittedly, it's frigid outside. I observe that the only other patrons are a large party of what look to be Indian men, and that they order much more bread than we did. At the end of my meal, I pay using a credit card with a name that is not my own--very cloak-and-dagger, hush-hush, top-secret, but nobody cares. I resolve to come back for the buffet.
A few weeks later, I do. It's lunchtime, a weekend, the place is just about packed, people are eating majestically for $6.95 each. The 10-foot buffet is brimming with everything needed for a full meal--Tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, chicken curry, piles of roasty-fresh hot naan, raita, pickles, green salad fixings, a lentil dish, palak paneer (a sort of cheese-and-spinach casserole), mixed curried vegetables, two types of dessert.
My table, as set out in the advance strategy briefing, executes a sophisticated pincer maneuver. Some get the buffet, while others beeline for the pricier dishes, like the India Palace Special--a $16.95 platter of Tandoori shrimp, Tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, marinated lamb, a choice of bread, and an accompanying plate of lamb or chicken curry. The special, which arrives sizzling on an iron plate covered with noisily popping onions, looks strikingly like a fajita platter. A former Londoner and shahi korma expert seizes on the chicken shahi korma ($9.95)--a buttery concoction of chicken and fresh cheese chunks bathed in a pink, creamy sauce full of cashews and raisins. It's a delicious indulgence, and is pronounced so by all present.
Now, Mr. K., I have a suspicious nature and tend to think that if a restaurant offers a buffet, the dishes thereon are likely to be inferior to those available from the menu. Not so here. The Tandoori chicken is just as carefully prepared and densely flavorful on the buffet as it is à la carte, and on the buffet all the extras are essentially free--the pickles, the bread, the variety! This strikes me as being very good-hearted, the very definition of hospitality. I write these things down: Hospitality. Value.
Next, having made up my mind about the poor, defenseless restaurant, I call up the owners or managers to find the story behind their establishment. Sometimes they invite me over, and if there is something I want to see--a special technique, a special piece of equipment, unusual ingredients--or if there is a language barrier to be overcome with signs, lip reading, and goodwill, I go. Sometimes no interview is possible because people don't believe I'm a restaurant critic, because they're terrified of me, or because the language barrier is too great. Sometimes people just aren't very quotable. From India Palace's owner Gurdeb Singh I learned that the restaurant opened eight months ago, that Singh is from the Punjab, and that the reason he picked the Roseville location was that "That's where all the customers are."
Now, armed with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I take to the library to research Punjabi cuisine. I learn that the Punjab, a region in northern India and eastern Pakistan, is an agricultural powerhouse threaded with irrigation canals. Farmers in the Punjab keep water buffalo who soak themselves in those canals, and these water buffalo give a milk richer and fattier than cow's milk. Punjabi cuisine is loaded with dairy products--with butter, yogurt, cheese (called paneer), and ghee (clarified butter); one should assume that every dish has dairy in it unless otherwise specified.
Certain items on India Palace's menu begin to make more sense in light of this knowledge, such as the dessert gulab jamun ("deep-fried milk balls" ($2.25))--tooth-achingly sweet milk-soaked pastries--and kheer (1.95), a tasty rice pudding that's more like a milk-based rice soup. Research also reveals that the traditional way to eat Punjabi cuisine is to take a bit of bread, pick up a spoonful of stew or meat with it, tuck in a bit of homemade pickle, and have a little sandwich.
Now I know as much as I'm going to know about India Palace--its cultural roots, attentive service, adequate wine and beer menu, and great hospitality. Now it's time for fear. A deep, bone-chilling fear. Because I have plenty of information but no story.
To answer your question, Mr. K., if I write a negative review, nothing much happens. Some people hate me, but you know, so what, who cares. Their arrows are but splinters in the steel hull of my hide.
But if I write a bad review, it haunts me forever. People at parties say, "I read your last piece," purse their lips and stare uncomfortably over my shoulder. The cursed page sits in my clip book, hooting: "You may be writing in the language of Shakespeare, but you ain't no Shakespeare." It mocks me with its dreary, witless paragraphs: "Hell, you ain't even Bret Easton Ellis." Those bad reviews shave years off my life. They really do.
So I rummage around the old cranium for anything, anything to make a story out of a newish, very nice, but not spectacular Indian restaurant in Roseville. I play with the idea of emphasizing the all-you-can-eat buffet. How about a play on "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité"? I conceive of a heraldic shield featuring a fork and knife piercing a thesaurus inscribed with the legend "Gluttony, Wantonly, Pastry..." But the syllables, the syllables! If the weak idea doesn't get you, the syllables will.
I reread the news item about the Russian satellite that aimed to light up that North Dakota town, and think I might get something going about a football-field-sized magnifying glass burning people like ants. Something about how you could pay off the Russians to block the sun so that an individual of your choice could be forced to live in perpetual darkness. But this, I think, has no doubt already been done, better, in talk-show monologues.
Desperately then, but gratefully, tears streaming down my face, I recall one of journalism's most tried and true conceits, the epistolary feint, also known as answering a reader's letter. If it weren't for you, Mr. K., I would have had to fall back on an even filthier gambit, the dreaded cab-driver conversation, or the even more loathsome dictionary definition: pal*ace (pal´is) n. 1. The official residence of a royal personage... Shudder.
It would be nice to hear from me, Mr. K.? My dear sir, it is not merely nice to hear from you, it is sweet deliverance.
MILDA'S LIVES: Milda's, the beloved North Minneapolis diner and pasty shop, has gotten a reprieve from what a few weeks ago seemed like a death sentence: The café, whose low-slung building is slated for demolition this spring, has extended its lease and looks to be open until the end of April. In addition, a group connected to Redeemer Lutheran Church is searching for a Harrison neighborhood location where Milda's could reopen. In the meantime, lovers of the authentic, the irreproducible, and the historic are strongly advised to slip into one of the old location's turquoise booths for a pasty. Pasties are served hot Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays ($4.50 with coleslaw; add 35 cents for extra gravy) and frozen Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Milda's Café is at 1825 Glenwood Ave. N., (612) 377-9460; hours are 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday; closed Sundays and the last Saturday of every month.
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