Does a good meal require friendly — or even helpful — service?
That's the question we found ourselves mulling over after dining at India Palace. The 15-year old Cockeysville restaurant's food is undeniably good, but the service, though timely, stops short of being welcoming.
At most restaurants, that would put a huge damper on the meal as a whole. But somehow, at India Palace, the aloof service didn't detract from the experience.
Scene & Decor During our Saturday afternoon visit, India Palace was about half full and every diner seemed to be a regular. From the outside, the restaurant doesn't look like much — just one more storefront in an older shopping center.
Inside, neatly pressed linens, gilded artwork, sparkling chandeliers and a well-dressed staff added a sprinkle of formality. Though the customers were casually dressed, their hushed tones and focus on the food gave the room an even more reserved vibe.
Appetizers India Palace's menu is typical of local northern Indian restaurants. While it offers no big surprises, it also covers all the expected bases.
Our favorite appetizers included crisped vegetable pakoras (4.95) doused in tangy, barbecue-like sauce and cold vegetables topped with raita ($2.95). The tang of the yogurt-based sauce paired especially nicely with sweet slices of crunchy carrot.
Entrees Chicken vindaloo ($11.95) arrived in a small crock, piping hot. Chunks of chicken and potato sat in well-seasoned tomato sauce with just a touch of spicy heat (we ordered the dish with regular spice). The chicken and potatoes were nicely cooked but the sauce was the star. We continued to spoon it over rice and eat it long after the chicken was gone. The rice, too, was fragrant and expertly cooked.
Daal maharni ($10.95), a popular northern Indian lentil dish, was a vegetarian-friendly hit. Lentils, cooked in liquid to a thick, stew-like consistency, were garlicky and just a bit spicy — perfect for scooping with chewy bits of naan.
Our favorite entree, curried goat ($14.95), tasted both familiar and exotic. Hunks of goat, simmered in fragrant, savory tomato-based sauce, tasted similar to beef stew but Indian spices lent the goat foreign flair. The dish was comforting and immensely satisfying.
Dessert A small dish of soupy kheer (pudding made with basmati rice) ($3.50) was a sweet, but not cloying, way to end the meal.
Drinks India Palace is BYOB with no corkage fee. Light beers and low-alcohol white wines (even champagne) would be a good match for the restaurant's flavor-packed food.
Service Everything we ate at India Palace was very good and the food was well-timed out of the kitchen. But the staff's approach was not exactly service with a smile. In fact, from the time we walked in until we paid and left, we didn't see even a hint of a grin on either of the two men working.
The service itself was adequate but not perfect. Our orders were taken promptly, and during the meal, the two waiters kept our water glasses filled, though an ordered iced tea never arrived. Because no one asked if we had everything we needed, or if the food was okay, we decided we'd be fine with just water.
They didn't volunteer any help, either, at the end of the meal, when we weren't sure of the payment protocol. Though we were looking around, trying to track down our bill, no one came to the table. Eventually, we walked to the front of the space, where one of our waiters stood behind a register, and we asked how to pay. (Turns out, they hand you the bill at the register.)
Experiences like that can be off-putting. As a diner, it's uncomfortable to feel like you don't know the rules of the restaurant. We had that moment of discomfort at India Palace.
But as it turned out, it passed. At some restaurants, indifferent service would be enough to keep us from returning. At India Palace, it just seemed like part of the atmosphere, as much as the chandeliers or the table linens.
The quality of the food — especially the well-seasoned sauces — helped, too, making the service seem less important. (And we've heard from other diners that they have had warm, welcoming experiences there in the past.) So as we left, instead of complaining about the staff, we found ourselves planning our next visit.
Back story: A Cockeysville favorite since 1999, India Palace serves traditional Indian food in a space that is a mishmash of formal (linen tablecloths and chandeliers) and casual (a shopping center location and dressed-down patrons).
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: Curried goat is savory and hearty, like a slightly exotic, wholly satisfying, beef stew.
Where: 35 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville
Contact: 410-628-6800; indiapalacecockeysville.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Well-executed northern Indian food makes up for service that is timely but abrupt