The menu at downtown's Amber Palace delivers many options to the Indian-food enthusiast. It's sorted by appetizers, soups, tandoori, complete dinners, vegetables, seafood dishes, entrées, chef's specialties, breads, biryanis, extras (chutney and pickles), desserts, and beverages. If there is not a dish on this menu to tempt you, you really shouldn't be in an Indian restaurant.
We kicked things off with the aloo tikki -- "kick" being the operative word here. While the menu said these potato-and-peas-filled deep-fried fritters were mildly spiced, the cayenne will clear your sinuses. (Consider this a warning: While you're asked to specify mild, medium, or spicy for your entrées, even the mild has some oomph.) The vegetable pakoras were fritters with cauliflower, eggplant, and onions. These fritters were very good -- lightly spiced with a nutty flavor, deep-fried, and served with chutney. The murg pakoras should have been called boneless chicken strips with a little cumin in the batter. They were tasty but ordinary, uneventful.
For our first entrée, we had the murg tandoori, a chicken breast and thigh marinated in yogurt, lemon, a little garlic, ginger, chili, garam masala, and a little food coloring to make the chicken a vibrant red. The chicken came hot in a black skillet with slivered white onions and lime wedges. My dining companion considered it a little dry (it was just the way I like it) but found the flavors to be quite appealing. Next up: the chana palak, fresh spinach cooked curry-style with garbanzo beans, herbs, and served with white basmati rice speckled with black caraway seeds. The spinach had a creamy consistency, and its layers of flavors made it the perfect mate for the garlic naan. Naan is flat leavened bread traditionally slapped onto the walls of a tandoor oven to bake while the meat is cooking. Our naan had been seasoned with a touch of garlic that, with the richness of the spinach, made a very filling and welcome addition to our meal.
The mixed tandoori was murg tandoori, murg tikka (tandoori-roasted boneless chicken), sheesh kabob with lamb, shahi lamb kabab (marinated lamb skewered over hot charcoal), and shrimp. The sheesh kabab's lamb had been ground and had a curry flavor. The shrimp was like rubber, but the lamb had the tenderness of a piece of filet mignon -- no knife needed. The best entrée we ordered had to be the lamb biryanis with raita. Biryanis are made up of basmati rice and meat and/or a vegetable in a curry sauce with raisins and nuts. The lamb biryanis came mounded on a large plate and served with a side of raita (a creamy mixture of yogurt with a hint of sweet-tart apples and the nutty flavor of roasted cumin seed). Its bright red color and sweet spicy flavor (both traits from the curry, paprika, and turmeric) mixed with tender, moist lamb that melted in your mouth. As I enjoyed the mingling of the flavors, I bit into a plump golden raisin. The sweetness of the raisin and yogurt mixture tempered the curry and gave the dish richness and depth. I looked for the nuts the menu mentioned would be in the dish but never found any. They really weren't missed. The biryanis was delicious without them.
By this point, we were stuffed and had enough left over to feed all of us for days -- trust me, the Amber Palace is generous with its portions. And yet we ordered dessert anyway. We chose to share the kulfi, an Indian-style ice cream, which had the consistency of ice cream blended with gelatin. The kulfi was extremely sweet, though the saltiness of pistachios and almonds helped even out the flavor. I enjoyed it and I am glad we ordered it, but it was a bit sweet for me.
As my companions and I relaxed after this delightful meal, we reflected on our experience and checked out the décor. The restaurant is painted bright royal-blue and gold. The black metal chairs and white cloth-covered tables seat about 100 patrons comfortably and give the restaurant a very modern feel. Amber Palace has strategically placed televisions in the front and back of the restaurant showing Indian music videos. I am not really a fan of any television being in a restaurant (unless it is a sports bar/restaurant) and definitely found them distracting. The wait staff is knowledgeable, helpful, and attentive without being obtrusive.
Amber Palace is located at 97 South Second Street (578-9800) across from The Peabody. Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dinner hours: 5 to10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers and soups range from $1 to $5.95, entrées $7.95 to $12.95, and desserts $2.50 to $2.95.