Get Your Goat

Making a passage to India Palace for interesting, tasty fare

And now, a word or two in praise of goat.

It's probably even rarer than emu on local menus, although it's been showing up a bit more frequently lately, especially in some Mexican restaurants. So, given my penchant for ordering what appears to me to be the weirdest thing on the menu, I couldn't resist picking one of the four goat choices available during a recent visit to India Palace, the enjoyable albeit oddly decorated and situated Indian restaurant located atop the airport Howard Johnson's.

The curried version of goat is advertised as a "Kashmiri delicacy," and it tantalized both my taste buds and my nostrils. Its moderately thick, dark sauce holds only mild fire from hot chiles but contains a rich mixture of seasonings that included what we Westerners would normally think of as pie spices (cinnamon, clove, etc.), imparting a hint of sweetness and an overall exotic impression. As for the goat meat itself, it certainly doesn't "taste like chicken" -- more like slow-cooked pork, though not quite as firm -- and it magically takes on the flavor of the sauce, through and through. The one stumbling block beyond the immediate plunge of ordering goat is the bones. There are lots of them, and as a result, quite a bit of manipulation was involved in removing the meat. I sure thought it was worth it, though.

But if that sounds entirely too weird, there's plenty of other stuff on the menu -- several dozen lamb, chicken and seafood choices and even one beef dish, along with a broad selection of vegetarian dishes. On every dish, spicing may be adjusted to order, from ultrasafe all the way up to completely dangerous.

All meals begin with a plate of the crispy unleavened bread called papadam, served with two small containers of sauce, one chunky and green, the other a smooth maroonish-brown. The former has a mint base but not a traditional mint taste, owing to the addition of onions and chiles, whereas the latter is smooth and unspicy, with the subtly sweet, sour and citrusy taste of tamarind.

The appetizers are definitely Indian, but some -- like tandoori chicken wings and onion pakora -- easily straddle the line between East and West. The wings are a lot like the classic bar food (closer to the barbecued variety than the hot Buffalo style), except that their being cooked in the hot tandoor oven leaves them with crispy elements of singe at the edge of the skin. The onion pakora -- onion strips breaded in garbanzo-bean flour and deep-fried -- are close cousins to onion rings, but with a vaguely nutty flavor to the batter that balances nicely with the tamarind sauce for dipping.

The pakora style is also available in three other appetizers, and the paneer pakora places the same batter up against two patties of dense cream cheese, with a layer of spices sandwiched in between. The spices in the breading for the Bombay fish appetizer give the coating an orange tinge, and the fish in between takes on the taste and texture characteristics of English fish 'n' chips.

A wide variety of tandoori dishes are offered among the entrées, and we availed ourselves of the mixed tandoori grill to sample how the broiler-level temperature of this style of cooking affects various ingredients. As it turned out, this dish likely should have been shared, featuring numerous pieces of chicken, two jumbo shrimp, a large filet of sea bass and a roll of ground lamb. As with all of the entrées, a bed of saffron rice and peas is laid down by the waiter on the dinner plate as a base for the main course. All the items take on the characteristic adobe color of tandoor cooking -- the chicken and lamb much more so than the seafood -- and the intense heat imparts varying levels of crispiness to the outer layer of the cooked dishes -- thicker on the chicken and lamb, thinner on the fish and shrimp, although in all cases it locks a high level of juiciness into the interiors.

The keema mater also uses ground lamb -- here it's combined with green peas and onion and sauced mildly. Ground lamb isn't as popular in Western kitchens, but just as a meat loaf is often a better match with gravy than a steak, grinding the lamb makes it much more conducive to sauces, and it allows it to go further when served all together with vegetables and starches. Aloo mater is very much the same dish, only vegetarian, substituting potatoes for the lamb as the main ingredient.

And although the complimentary papadam may last through the whole meal, there are also quite a few styles of the fluffy leavened bread called nan offered for just a dollar or two more. We were quite taken with the garlic nan, whose texture is fluffy like bread but also close to that of the pulpiness of roasted whole garlic.

Desserts presented us with yet another adventure, relying on both expected and unexpected ingredients. Kolfi is an elegant pistachio ice cream, rich and thick and served as two half-moons rather than in scoops, and khir is a traditional creamy-style rice pudding, leaning toward the unusual with the addition of saffron. Gulab jamon is three spheres not unlike the removed centers of doughnuts, but with a cheese texture combined with the cake texture and a base of sweet syrup. Perhaps my favorite, though, was the ras malai, three patties of the same style of fresh farmer's cheese that was used in our paneer pakora appetizer, this time in a milk with added sweetness and vanilla flavoring.

More than a dozen wines are available, but as with Thai and other complex, spicy cuisines, I generally find a good lager beer to be one of the best beverages to go with the meal. India Palace offers two Indian brews -- Taj Mahal in the large bottle and Kingfisher (which gets the award for most amusing advertising tagline: "Most Thrilling Chilled") in a standard-sized bottle. India Palace also offers lassi, a thick yogurt-based drink that's great for kids, especially in its mango-flavored form.

The path up to the top floor of HoJo's is a little obscure -- the bottom of the building is a bank drive-through, and the sign announcing the location of the restaurant is to the left inside the entry doors, not totally in view unless you're paying close attention. There's no signage in the elevator lobby, nor is there any indication of which button to push once you get inside the elevator. The restaurant space itself is decorated with bamboo paneling and volcano stone dating to a previous incarnation, although the turbans on several of the staff and the addition of elaborate artwork does help bring the current motif into focus.

Those who still get a kick out of watching planes take off and land can enjoy the 11th-floor overlook of the southwestern edge of Lambert Field, and those with a political bent can get a bird's-eye view of all the stuff that'll be bulldozed when work starts on the W-1W expansion. Whether that strikes you as progress or it really gets your goat, this is a fine place to ponder the future as you explore an alternative cuisine.

INDIA PALACE, 4534 N. Lindbergh Blvd. (at I-70), 314-731-3333. Entrées: $9.95-$18.95. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. daily.