May 20 2009 12:00 AM

Restaurateur revives India Palace


Surprises don’t come often in the local dining scene. Which is what makes sipping on a delicious mango and yogurt smoothie at the new and improved India Palace in East Lansing more than a chance to revel in something new and exquisite, but also something to tell your friends about.

Chef and owner Paddy Rawal reopened India Palace a few months ago, transforming the eatery from a run-of-the mill curry and rice factory to a gourmet eatery. With more than two decades of experience in restaurants around the world, from cooking in fivestar kitchens beside master chefs to managing the operations of food distributors, Rawal brings a wealth of know-how to his new baby on Albert Avenue in downtown East Lansing. "I came (from India) to Michigan eight years ago with $100 — with a dream — to this great country,” he said. “It is a land of opportunity, and I am an example."

With a partner, Rawal first opened an Indian restaurant in Farmington Hills, but the lure of a new adventure and opportunity drew him to East Lansing earlier this year. After signing on the dotted line (currently as a management company, until the liquor license is transferred), Rawal worked around the clock for two days before opening for his first day of business.

Rawal said he had a plan for his new restaurant from day one. His culinary philosophy involves employing a variety of spices and aromatics to enrich and enhance the flavors on his menu. He embraces the complexity of Indian cuisine, and he is quick to admonish typecast Indian cooking that overemphasizes heat in place of diversity. "My food is all about flavors, my food is all about spices," Rawal says. "It’s not hot, it’s not overwhelming; it’s flavorful."

The mango lassi smoothie ($2.95), a simple pleasure made with nothing but low-fat yogurt and mango, drinks through the straw like a velvety shake — rich, thick and oh-so-refreshing on a warm spring afternoon. Its flavor will undoubtedly com pound exponentially, as the mercury level rises throughout the summer.

A daily lunch buffet ($7.95) affords busy workers a quick meal with plenty of options. But midday diners can order from the full menu as well.

Samosas ($4.95) are one of Rawal’s same-old-Indian–restaurant indulgences. The popular golden brown, tri-folded pockets filled with potatoes, peas and carrots might be a run-of-the-mill deep-fried appetizer at most restaurants, but served with two gourmet dipping sauces at India Palace, the treats are transformed into a delicacy. One dip combines mint with cilantro and other flavors for a bright, somewhat tangy experience. The other dip combines tamaric and cumin with various spices, producing a mild chipotle-like flavor with an undertone of cinnamon instead of heat. The key is to hold the samosa in the dip for a few seconds, letting the sauce seep into the absorbent potatoes.

All but one poultry dish uses boneless, skinless chicken, and many of them are marinated and cooked as kabobs. The chicken tikka ($10.95) is infused with garlic, ginger and various spices, removed from its skewer after cooking and served on a bed of mixed greens. A creamy, burnt-orange sauce Rawal likens to an “Italian tomato Alfredo sauce” accompanies the meat.

During our conversation, Rawal zipped away numerous times, intercepting exiting customers — or guests, as he insisted his patrons be called — and making sure their dining experience was satisfactory. "Good is not enough for me," he said.

While the food might get new customers in the door, Rawal knows it’s the service that will keep them coming back. That’s why he commutes to his pride and joy every day from Farmington Hills, working from sunrise to well after sunset. "I am only as good as the last meal I serve," Rawal said, in earnest. "That’s what keeps me going."

India Palace, 340 Albert Ave., East Lansing. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5 p.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 12-3 p.m. and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday . (517)