Some day I want to walk into a restaurant with palace in the name and discover that it really is palatial. Something out of a movie, I guess, with marble corridors, dazzling Oriental carpets, beautiful harem girls covered in jewels, music from Kismet wafting through every room. I'll never give up looking for that exotic place.
"You're not likely to find it in a Lee's Summit strip mall," my friend Patrick warned. He and Gary, who love Indian food, had agreed to drive with me to Lee's Summit in search of Bombay Palace, this eastern suburb's first Indian restaurant. The two of them had been hesitant to make the trek. When Patrick heard about my palace fantasy, he suggested that I try Disney World instead. Patrick knows that I have a very poor sense of direction. "We could start out on the highway heading for Lee's Summit," he told Gary, "and might actually wind up in Bombay!"
But a Bombay Palace employee had given me excellent directions, filled with easy-to-find landmarks: the new St. Luke's East-Lee's Summit hospital, an Outback Steakhouse, a Panera Bread. And suddenly, there we were, in front of the not-so-palatial Palace.
Bombay Palace, which is three months old, isn't grand in any way. There are, however, some theatrical elements in the tidy, charmless room: The glass-paned wall at the front of the spacious dining room is decked out in filmy red sheers, and, on the two interior walls, some enterprising soul created false windows — or at least the impression of windows — from red and pink fabric cleverly hung as curtains. Patrick said the place looks like a "before" interior on one of those TV makeover shows, before someone (like the Style Network's Peter Perfect) comes in and glams up the joint.
But our beautiful and willowy young server had more than enough charisma to turn up the glamour quotient. Born in India and raised in New Jersey, she now lives in Kansas City. "There's so much open land here, and so many pretty parks," she told us. "But there's nothing to do."
Well, not like in New Jersey, I guess. She also informed us that Bombay Palace's owner is the manager of Westport's Korma Sutra Indian restaurant as well. The menus are pretty similar, with an emphasis on rich and creamy sauces, goat dishes and flatbreads baked in a tandoor oven. Because Northern Indian cuisine is becoming more popular in Kansas City, it's hard to call this food exotic. But for someone unfamiliar with this style of cooking, it might seem downright weird. On one of my visits, I watched a young couple gazing over the menu with some confusion — that is, when they weren't sitting in silence, texting on their cell phones. When a server arrived at their table with a dish of light, crispy papadam wafers, the young woman looked away from her phone long enough to snap, "I don't like spicy food."
The menu listed plenty of mildly spiced dishes, but Gary wasn't looking in that direction. "I like my Indian food to be so hot that the lining of my stomach starts to burn," he said. And when the server asked whether he wanted his beef curry mild, medium or hot, he told her, "Hot, but kick it up a notch."
Hey, I like spicy food, too, but I want to taste all the ingredients, not just the chiles. And on the subject of ingredients: Bombay Palace is the first Indian restaurant where I've seen a condiment tray that replaces onion chutney — which I love — with a gluey combination of onion and tomato ketchup. It was ghastly. Also, the beauty of the jade-green mint chutney couldn't make up for its blandness. All of this accompanied the Bombay Palace Platter — an array of surprisingly light and ungreasy vegetable samosas, paneer and chicken pakoras, and little lamb sausages that tasted like convenience-store jerky.
Our dinners were sensational, though. Gary's beef curry swam in a bubbly, fiery red sauce. Patrick's (mild) lamb was gorgeously tender, swathed in a creamy tomato sauce with cashews, coconut and raisins. "It's wonderful," he raved, "and they serve real basmati rice."
I was less enamored of my goat makhani masala — a wonderful tomato-garlic sauce but bony, gristly meat. I sopped up the sauce with pieces of naan, but it wasn't a great naan, either — overbaked, tough and crispy instead of soft and puffy.
Happily, though, the meal ended with complimentary cups of spicy chai and rice pudding — a thick, creamy pudding instead of the watery, bluish broth served at some of the city's Indian venues.
The food was vastly superior on my second visit, this time with Bob. We started the meal with fried onion (onion bhaji) and cheese (paneer pakora), which Bob smothered in sweet, sticky tamarind sauce. I wanted to love the coconut soup, which was light and frothy — and so sweet, it tasted like melted ice cream.
Bob's favorite Indian dish — the only Indian entrée he'll order — is butter chicken. It was excellent, as was one of this restaurant's signature dishes: a seafood vindaloo made with chunks of flaky, baked white fish in a sexy sauce of chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and potatoes. After searching out every bit of fish, I soaked up the rest of the sauce with breads that were really first-rate this time — hot, pillowy naan and a thick kulcha, baked with fragrant onion and herbs.
All the while, Indian pop music was playing over the sound system. The lively beats made Bob nostalgic for the now-defunct Bollywood Café in Independence. It used to screen snippets from Bollywood musicals on a big monitor. "I wish someone would do that again," he sighed. "That was like dinner theater."
Maybe someone will, but in the meantime, places like the Bombay Palace are focusing on the food as entertainment. Here it was moderately priced, lusciously spiced, and in such generous portions that I felt I just had to take home the leftovers.
Back in my own palace later that night, I stumbled into the kitchen and sleepily bit into a wedge of cold naan. Indian breads, I realized, are best served white-hot from the oven. In the fridge, they become chewy and leathery. This midnight snack wasn't fit for a queen, but what the hell, I ate it anyway.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.