There are two ways to unveil a new restaurant: with grand fanfare, hoping to fill the rafters from day one, or oh-so softly, in order to iron kinks and hone systems before the crowds descend. The risk in strategy number one is that the establishment might fumble the kickoff and prove incapable of satisfactorily servicing throngs of people. This leads to poor word of mouth — the last thing you want as a first impression. Quiet openings are also prone to problems, some of which are evident at Indian Palate, which held its almost silent debut in Coral Gables this past February.
The restaurant is located off the intersection of Salzedo Street and Alcazar Avenue in a lovely venue once occupied by Le Festival. The voluminous interior is divided into two main dining rooms, with other secluded nooks tucked in here and there. With dim lighting, dark wood tables, tile floors, and curved alcove doorways, the space could pass as an old-world Spanish tavern — assuming you didn't pay any mind to Eastern artifacts tastefully tacked to the walls.
The most obvious obstacle to succeeding with an under-the-radar startup is that not enough people find out about the place to keep it busy. Couple this with the typical patron's disinclination to dine in a nearly empty restaurant, and the problem can morph into a self-perpetuating cycle that is hard to break. Only a few of Indian Palate's tables were occupied during our visits.
2120 Salzedo St., Coral Gables; 786-360-3664. Lunch buffet daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Other unfortunate consequences can follow. For instance, staff might get trimmed to save money. Indian Palate's chef/owner Jay Mariadoss was the only cook in the kitchen, and the food, not surprisingly, was slow in coming out. Few customers translates to low tips, so experienced waiters seek employment elsewhere. Plus a certain demoralized look overtakes the facial expressions and body language of those working in a lethargic environment. Our server was downright glum, although he adequately performed his tasks.
Compounding those challenges is an expansive menu that touts 50-plus entrée choices — way too many for an establishment that is not turning over tables to a consistent degree. This situation leads to food not rotating in and out of the restaurant as quickly as it should, which, at the very least, robs flavors of freshness. Still, you have to admire chef Mariadoss's ambitiousness and willingness to delve into regional dishes not found in our other Indian joints. There's chicken cooked in the styles of not only tandoori, biryani, khorma, and tikka masala, but also noorjehani, karachi, jalfrezi, makhani, andhra, and chettinad. The last, a curry specialty from Tamilnadu in South India, featured strips of boneless chicken stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, all hot and pungent with freshly ground masalas — including star aniseed, whole red chilies, cinnamon, and curry leaves. The more conventional tandoori chicken was notably moist and requisitely piquant. Pale yellow "lemon" rice tasted more of spicy curry leaf than citrus — which is not a bad thing.
Breads are unexpectedly limited to nan and paratha (with a variation or two on each). A thin, potato-stuffed version of the latter pleased with chapati flour wheatiness, but nan was pale and strangely biscuit-like in taste and texture — no char marks, blisters, or even slight browning (maybe they forgot to preheat the tandoor).
There are 20-plus starters. You can't go wrong with the textbook vegetable samosa, but better is a memorable rendition of steamed mussels with tandoori-clarified butter and tangy tamarind sauce. A quartet of kebabs was hit-and-miss: Spicy minced lamb churga and prawn-size shrimp on skewers soared; dry, listless chicken tikka and paneer tikka kebabs bored.
Diners are privy to just about any staple of Indian cooking style they might desire — biryani, rogan josh, curry, and so forth. But chef Mariadoss, who formerly worked at Hotel Victor's Vix, has set the menu so patrons can also order combination plates comprising four dishes (one of which is vegetarian) from a specific region. The "North Indian palate," for instance, brings moist morsels of Navabi-style lamb spotted with cashews and raisins in a rich curry sauce; chicken tikka masala in mild, traditional tomato-tinted sauce with a slight spritz of coconut milk; shrimp malai curry, a Bengali dish potent with garam masala, coconut, and ginger; and what was supposed to be aloo gobi, a dry-spice mix of cauliflower and potatoes, but turned out to be aloo palak, an equally satisfying spinach-spud spin.
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The "meat trio" will likely muffle protest from any in your group roped into eating Indian food against their will, because the cuts and presentations (excepting the sauces) are akin to those in a Western steak-house sampler. The combo featured a New Zealand lamb chop cooked a juicy medium-rare and coated in khorma sauce; a modestly sized, mildly dry-rubbed disk of beef tenderloin in a meaty brown sauce; and a square top butt cut of sadly fatless Kurobuta pork not quite resuscitated by vindaloo sauce.
Indian Palate shows respect to vegetarians via a plethora of meatless options. Have a yen for lentils? Sample them here as patties, pancakes, doughnuts, dumplings, crêpes, or plain yellow dal. Our entrée of mixed vegetables in khorma sauce was coconutty but too timidly spiced.
Like the rest of the menu, desserts are offered à la carte or as combos. We took a trio of creamy rice pudding (rice kheer); gajar ka halwa, a carrot-based treat spiced with cardamom and sweetened with condensed milk, sugar, and raisins; and gulab jamun, a fried milk dough seeped with honey/sugar syrup that finished with a perfumed hint of rosewater.
Much of Indian Palate's carefully crafted cuisine warrants praise, though there is clearly a need for improved consistency. A more pressing concern is the lack of clientele, which makes dining here a less than stimulating experience. The good news is that if Indian Palate gets crowded once season arrives, it will have had plenty of time to iron out the kinks.