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Palace of Asia
540 Lawrence Square Boulevard South
Lawrenceville, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 689-1500

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

When I first reviewed Palace of Asia, over six years ago now (6/15/98), I freely confess that I was significantly less than impressed. In the interim, however, the restaurant has moved to spiffy new quarters in the Village Square Shopping Center and, based upon several recent visits, the kitchen appears to have improved dramatically.

The old digs, located in the Mercer Mall were, in my opinion, something of an overwrought ornamental nightmare, conjuring up apocalyptic visions of the interior of the Taj Mahal bedeviled by Salvador Dalí. The decorative scheme in their current domicile, however, is infinitely more tasteful and subdued. It is, in management's own words, "aristocratic"; chic and elegant of line and sophisticated of tone, the main dining area soothes the eye with a placid profusion of blues, browns & beiges and the sinuous sensuality of classically curvaceous banquettes. There is also an equally impressive cozy bar/lounge and a beautiful yasmeena darbar, an intimate executive dining room that may accommodate up to twenty-four guests for special occasions and business functions.

And the cuisine appears to be in perfect harmony with the décor: demonstrative yet demure. The fervid peristaltic conflagrations often associated with Indian food -- most notably those inflicted by the overzealous infusion of chilies -- have been artfully ameliorated. Some might consider this a blatant dumbing down for the bland-leading-the-bland American palate; but I would strongly disagree. For while the fanatical culinary wildfires may have been domesticated, the fervor of beguiling aromas, tastes, and textures remains completely undiminished.

Alpahar, appetizers served with a slightly spicy dark and distinctive tamarind sauce and smidgeon spicier creamy coriander, are all highly recommended. And the first inkling that the kitchen is on its game is the chicken tikka ($8.95; also available as an entrée specialty at $13.95), marinated pieces of skewered chicken fresh from the tandoor oven. When I sampled the establishment's take on this dish six years ago, the fowl was inordinately dry. The current version, however, brings forth a host of tender morsels that are both marvelously moist and seductively seasoned.

In my first review, I also mentioned that the various deep-fried samosas and pakoras tended to be on the greasy side. I am happy to say that this is now certainly NOT the case. The vegetables samosas ($3.95) -- three turnovers filled with pungent potatoes and green peas -- are wonderfully crisp and exhibit not even the faintest reminiscence of oil. Carnivores might also consider the equally delectable meat samosas ($4.95) filled with ground lamb.

Pakoras provide several options: chicken ($5.95), assorted vegetables ($4.75), and panir ($4.95), homemade Indian cheese balls. My absolute favorite, however, is the fish pakora ($8.95). Slender segments of catfish filet are lightly breaded and fried to a perfect shade of golden brown, the gentlest bite piercing the delicate crust, giving way to a succulent and flaky interior. In a similar vein, the deep-fried spinach balls, harabhara kabab ($4.95), are exquisitely seasoned and, like the fish pakora, exhibit an ethereally crusty countenance.

Should you have difficulty making up your mind, you may always opt for the mixed appetizer for two ($7.95) -- vegetable samosas, pakoras, and papadam (lentil wafers) -- or the tandoori mixed grill ($17.95), which also accommodates two persons.

Main courses present numerous intriguing possibilities. Vaishnau bhojan bhandar -- vegetarian specialties, the pride of southern India -- are all first-rate choices. Several personal favorites include: bhartha ($11.95), roasted eggplant simmered with green peas & tomatoes and jazzed up with ginger and garlic; aloo gobhi ($10.95), cauliflower and potatoes in the company of onions, tomatoes, and a host of Indian spices; and daal makhani ($8.95), black beans and lentils simmered in cream and anointed with just a touch of butter, onion, ginger, and garlic. This latter offering, velvety and voluptuous, is particularly recommended.

Among the meatier possibilities, lamb is a consistent winner. The lamb pasanda ($15.95) -- thin slices marinated in garlic and yogurt and sautéed with onions, chili peppers, and tomatoes -- is tender and succulent and just as incredibly flavorful when heated as a leftover the following evening. The lamb kadhai ($15.95), prepared with tomatoes, onions, and green peppers is a bit more assertively seasoned but still quite excellent. The same ingredients also accompany shrimp ($17.50); the result, however, is not nearly as edifying. The crustaceans, though obviously of the highest quality and impeccably prepared, simply get lost in the sauce.

When it comes to the bahar-e-murg, chicken specialties, the aforementioned chicken tikka ($13.95) is very nice, indeed. You might also consider the saagwala ($12.95), boneless morsels of chicken sautéed with spinach and mild seasonings, or the makhani ($14.50), tandoor-baked chicken with an Oriental flair.

As noted above, the majority of dishes here are judiciously spiced so as not to cause any undue incendiary afflictions. The notable exceptions, of course, are the fiery vindaloos -- chicken ($13.95), fish ($15.95), shrimp ($17.95), beef ($13.95), and lamb ($15.95) -- which have been known to paralyze the uninitiated palate with a single bite. Partake at your own risk!

Roti ghar, homemade bread, has always played a strong supporting role in Indian cookery. Naan ($2.50), traditional tandoor-baked white bread, and puri ($2.95), deep-fried "balloon puffed" bread, both make commendable companions to a great variety of dishes. And among the lawazamaat, accompaniments, be sure to sample the raita ($1.95), homemade yogurt with grated cucumber and mint leaves, which provides a cooling counterpoint to the tantalizing spices.

Dessert-wise, stick with the Indian specialties and you can't go wrong. Kulfi ($3.95), authentic Indian ice cream flavored with pistachio and cashew nuts is a creamy delight. And the badam halwa ($5.50), roasted crushed almonds commingled with sugar & homemade butter and served up with vanilla ice cream, is hardly diet food but exceedingly difficult to resist. If you enjoy cheese, you might consider the gulab jaman ($3.95), milk and cheese balls dipped in syrup and served warm, or rasmalai ($3.95), homemade cheese simmered with milk and nuts and served cold.

And for the kiddies and diehard culinary conservaties among us, the Palace of Asia also offers a selection of strictly "American Fare."

The wine list is short and very much to the point. Given the nature of Indian cuisine, whites are to be preferred over reds. You could spend $95.00 for a Far Niente Chardonnay or $45.00 for the Silverado version. But why distress your pocketbook? A crisp, refreshing 2003 Ecco Domini Pinot Grigio ($25.00) should fill the bill nicely. The establishment also stocks India's famous Kingfisher beer, as well as a variety of foreign and domestic brews.

In light of the elegant surroundings and solicitous service, hope springs eternal that the invading hordes might be inclined to show a bit of class and dress the part. I'm not talking tuxedoes or sartorial finery here, but a bit of sprucing up would certainly be most appropriate. Well... dream on.

Of course, on quiet weekday evenings, with many people coming directly from work, the clientele appears more sophisticated and upscale in both manner and dress. On a madcap Saturday night, on the other hand, it's strictly the "grab and growl," feeding-time-at-the-zoo, tourist season, let's-get-in-and-out-ASAP crowd; and you find most illustrious representatives fetchingly garbed in the likes of cutoffs, dirty sneakers, grungy sweats, and an infinite variety of gimme caps (which remain firmly planted on their heads throughout the entire meal) advertising their favorite sports team or auto parts emporium.

Once again, I marvel. What is it about visiting certain ethnic eateries -- no matter how stylish and tasteful the ambiance may be -- that possesses diners to adorn themselves like refugees from a rescue mission thrift shop...? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing appears certain, however: Given its urbane décor and sumptuous cuisine, in matters of dress, Palace of Asia is deserving of infinitely more respect from its patrons.

Cuisine: Indian
Hours: Open 7 days: 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, DC, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar/lounge only.
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.palace-of-asia.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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