Fit For a Moghul

When two Indian restaurants in London won Michelin stars (only rarely bestowed upon ethnic eateries) last year, it initiated a spate of stories in American food publications about not just the goat cheese samosas on fresh pear chutney and other modernized neo-Indian dishes featured at the starred spots, but also about the many more traditional types of regional Indian food found all over London (but rarely in Miami). Here one will find an occasional specialty from the south of India, but most Indian restaurants feature the Muglai cuisine of northern India, a refined cooking style derived from the Turk/Mongol Moghuls who settled in India's northern plains in the 1500s. They brought with them many ingredients and techniques from Persia: highly perfumed spices and Middle Eastern sweet/sour fruit flavorings, subtle ways of preparing sauces, and fragrant rice that evolved into the typical fare found in Indian restaurants like Punjab Palace, which are neither cutting edge nor ethnically esoteric but are sources of solid, tasty traditional north Indian fare.

Physically this Palace is unassuming. It's waaay west in Kendall (the Turnpike's a block away), at the end of a small strip mall, right where you wouldn't notice it. The interior décor is also plain -- pleasant, clean, and white-on-white-dignified, with two exceptions: two booths with exotic overhead carvings and shiny, silver, lace-patterned paint all over the seats and walls, creating a campily exotic dining environment worthy of a maharajah. Or a first-class drag queen. Neither of whom you'll find here. The Palace is an old-fashioned restaurant, not a new-fashioned restaurant/lounge. So even a peasant such as myself felt free to grab one of these "VIP booths."

No need to fear South Beach drink prices, either, especially since the wine selection, like that at most Indian eateries, is awful. Beer is a better counterpoint to Indian food's spiciness, anyway, and Kingfisher, a strong but very smooth Indian lager, came, as signs on Punjab's tables enthused, "Most Thrillingly Chilled!" Teetotalers are also in luck: The lassi, a creamy cultured-yogurt drink, is only two dollars.


Punjab Palace

11780 N Kendall Dr, Miami

305-274-1300. Open Monday 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

A word about heat. The one and only complaint I used to hear about the Palace -- this is almost a decade ago; the place practically counts as an historic landmark in Florida -- was that the food was "milded down" from Indian to perceived American tastes, so that even food ordered hot was not.

I say "perceived American" because, contrary to popular myth, authentic Indian food does not necessarily scorch and burn for hours after eating. At any rate Punjab's stuff is no longer, if it ever was, Americanized-bland; the default heat level is mild, but dishes I ordered medium had noticeable warmth, and two hot dishes were definite sinus-clearers.

One of the best offerings was navratan vegetable korma. The Palace's slightly fruity and nutty navratan sauce, thickened with the usual yogurt as well as a touch of cream and probably cashew butter, was perfectly textured to coat the korma's solids, which numbered at least nine ("navratan" is the word for nine in Hindi) including peas, potato, and green beans; cashew pieces were supposed to be in the korma, too, but weren't.

The pink sauce of matar paneer (peas and fried squares of fresh curd cheese) had the same classic Moghul silky-smooth texture, but a tangier flavor from tomatoes blended into its dairy base. In America saag paneer (spinach and cheese) is more common, but Punjab's preparation demonstrates why sweeter and starchier peas are a much more popular pairing with delicate paneer in India than the bitter leaf vegetable.

Vegetable malai kofta was another standout. Kofta are meatballs, but Punjab's vegetable versions were far more elegant than the usual ground lamb sinkers. The sauce, though rich ("malai" means "cream"), had an almost whipped airiness, plus a pronounced tang preventing it from being cloyingly creamy.

Good, but not as good, were old standby chicken curry (nice moist poultry pieces, but a too-salty sauce); shrimp korma (rather small and very overcooked shrimp in a sauce that was nicely smooth but, again, oversalted); and keema mutter, an intensely spiced mix of ground meat, peas, and tomatoes in which the oily sauce was separated -- typical with unthickened sauces, but still unfortunate.

In contrast to the many Miami Indian restaurants that charge for every side dish, a number of freebies came with our entrées: pungently spiced pappadum -- crisp, paper-thin "lentil" wafers with an herb/vinegar dip plus another thin sauce that tasted delightfully fruity; a bowl of chunky, crisp, just-hot-enough onion/chili relish; and a mountain of very fragrant long-grain basmati rice pilau with flecks of some spice I'd guess was black cumin -- relatively rare, so many Indian eateries substitute more pedestrian and less expensive common white cumin.

Despite all the free stuff, however, I'd recommend investing a few bucks in bread (forget the priciest chef special nan, filled with some small and very dried-out Tandoori chicken bits, and go for gutsy garlic nan or, best, the subtly spongy onion-studded kulcha); some cooling raita, a yogurt "salad" which here contains carrot shreds as well as cucumber; and an order of homemade mango chutney.

Obviously Punjab Palace's food is not today's hip Indian food, full of invention and East/West fusion; it's not even traditional regional Indian food of a kind American aficionados of ethnic eateries haven't had hundreds of times before. But it's tasty, soul-satisfying stuff.

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