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The Spice Palette broadens the boundaries of Indian cuisine

Indian cuisine — GOOD Indian food — is within an easy drive for all of us. Fond destinations would include Swad Tandoori in New London, the Mint Leaf and Mirch Masala in Groton, the Royal Punjab in Norwich, A Taste of India in Mystic, and the Himalaya Café and Shakahari in Old Saybrook.

Apparently, we can happily support a rather dense per capita supply of Indian cuisine – and now please add New London's magnificent Spice Palette to the offerings. The restaurant is located in a familiar building on Bank Street that, over the years, has housed a Howard Johnson's, Harrington's Pub and Paesano's.

Eight weeks ago, after long months of the on/off-again realities of COVID and numerous plumbing, electrical and other structural improvements, the Spice Palette opened with a wondrous menu of southern and northern Indian and Malaysian traditional dishes as well as a creative blend of all. This occurs courtesy of the deft hands of sorcerer/chef Lijoy Varghese. He owns the Spice Palette along with his wife Niya Lijoy, who nuances front of the house duties with friendly charm and all the answers to any questions a curious diner might toss her way. Frequently, their daughter Cristina Lijoy, studying environmental technology at Grasso Tech, is on hand to help out.

Along with an equally cheery staff, the pleasant familial vibe coordinates wonderfully with the atmosphere. It's a pretty restaurant, with shiny dark walls, faux brick wainscotting, hanging lamps and, for the season, a beautiful Christmas tree and tasteful holiday décor. Customers familiar with the floorplan of the building from earlier restaurants will remember a long front room running parallel to Bank Street, with tasteful high-back booths and windows to the world. There's a to-go counter that offers, at lunchtime on Fridays and Saturdays, a variety of steam trays for an expansive buffet.

Perpendicular to the front room is a larger dining area with a small bar, spaciously positioned tables, a fountain in the center of the room and, overhead, a coffered ceiling painted in rich hues that reflect the room's lighting.

Buffets are back

On my first visit to the Spice Palette, meeting a friend for lunch on a Friday afternoon, I was a bit surprised to see an expansive buffet. Do people eat at buffets anymore? My friend then arrived. He's a physician. I pointed at the steam trays from which redolent aromas rose.

"Is it ... safe?" I asked.

"We've been vaxxed. We've had boosters, right?" I nodded. "Then let's eat!"

There's a box of thin, CSI-style gloves you put on to go through a line of fresh and steadily replenished dishes. Veggie dishes include Okra Masala, Veg Malabar and Aloo Gobi — creations with a mélange of combinations, including potatoes, cauliflower, chickpeas, dried chilies, curry leaves, eggplant, spices and delicious but indeterminate ingredients. And requisite reliables Chicken Tandoori, with marinated hunks of on-the-bone fowl, and Chicken Tikka Masala, with tender breast meat in a playful tomato and cream sauce, were also available..

It was pretty standard fare for an Indian buffet — and what you'd expect — but it was all delicious. The Doc and I both expressed that there seems to be a bit of creative work being done in the kitchen with spices and perhaps subtle tweaks to old recipes.

Something different going on

This was borne out in subsequent visits to order off an ambitious menu. Soups, salads, crepe-like dosas and vegetarian/non-vegetarian appetizers can get you rolling — but be careful. Portions are very substantial throughout the dining experience — and the entrée possibilities are almost overwhelming. There are Spice Palette specialties — including lamb, prawn and red snapper dishes — and a small but thoughtful Indo-Chinese section that includes three kinds of chili that aren't remotely similar to what you'd expect if your idea of chili comes from a Wolf Brand commercial.

There are 13 choices from the Tandoor oven — six (!) chicken variations, lamb, prawn, vegetable — and only then do you reach the separate lamb/goat, seafood, chicken and vegetarian sections, where Chef Lijoy waxes eloquently and creatively as he experiments with all the flavors and techniques across the Indian subcontinent. Oh, regarding the much-loved Indian breads, there are 17 types available including naan, roti and paratha and in options like honey-ginger, whole wheat, garlic, chili and chicken or lamb. Similarly expansive are the Biriyani/Rice category and a sauce-accompaniment menu that extends well beyond the mint and tomato options you're perhaps used to. A hint: try the lemon-pickle.

Two decades and thousands of miles

Starting his two-plus decades career in the kitchen of the Leela Goa hotel on the western coast of India, Chef Lijoy worked as a pastry chef and then expanded his horizon on a cruise ship line. He and his family moved to the U.S. and, after searching for the right opportunity, landed in New London. His culinary ideas and skill are remarkable.

It's best to think of the menu at the Spice Palette as a sort of long-term project — the way one would train for a triathlon or reading Proust. Take your time, savor, enjoy, don't be in a hurry. In fact, Niya Livjoy conveyed that, if it's busy, dishes can take 20-25 minutes to make. This precludes impatience complaints and allows the diner to appreciate the experience and appetizers or soup.

Over recent visits, for example, standouts included:

• Masala Dosa ($9.95) — This giant crepe contained a mixture of beets, potatoes and green peas. The beets were the subtle presence, popping up to playfully joust with the other flavors. Dipping bowls of coconut chutney, tomato chutney and a green sambar with okra and peppers meant each bite was a multiple-choice quiz with no wrong answers.

• Paneer Mutter ($13.95) — A true delight with cubes of homemade cheese and peas in a creamy tomato and onion sauce. The consistent texture is only heartened by the blend of tastes.

• Kerala Fish Curry ($17.95) — Garinia cambogia? Pleased to meet you! Turns out it's a tropical species of Malabar tamarind. It looks a bit like a golf ball sized pumpkin. When smoked and dried to a blackened core, the fruit becomes a chewy sour-sweet miracle. When mixed with curry leaves and mustard seeds in a rich sauce, it can be used to cook generous slices of fileted mahi mahi (or, as per the menu, salmon).

Is it sensorially recognizable as a curry? Absolutely. And yet ... there are star-shells of unexpected piquancy that render the whole dish a stunning and distinctive accomplishment.

• Aloo Paratha ($4.95) and Paneer Naan ($4.95) — Both come from the Indian Bread options and were interchangeable augmentation to the main dish while working just fine as standalones. The former had a great chew and a noticeable but not overwhelming filling of creamy potato; the latter's random squares of cheese popped a mellow tang.

A large bowl of aromatic basmati rice, festooned with delicate spices and mint, is served for the table and naturally becomes the harmony component to whatever your entrée might be.

It seems as though, despite the difficulties and losses in the local restaurant scene (and, of course, elsewhere), there are several new and encouraging restaurants emerging in the area. Godspeed to them all! Please visit the Spice Palette. It's a truly remarkable restaurant with caring people serving delightful variations in a classic mixture of indigenous styles.

If you go

The Spice Palette

929 Bank St., New London

(959) 201-6913, thespicepalatteus.com

Cuisine: Clever and fantastic takes on various styles from the Indian subcontinent

Atmosphere: Perfect mixture of elegant design with a casual feel

Service: Familial, welcoming; you'll be advised that, if crowded, dishes can take 20-25 minutes, so enjoy the ambience and appetizers

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.-Tues,, Thurs.-Sat.,dinner 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sun..Tues., Thurs. and 4:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., closed Wed.

Prices: Nothing over $21.95

Reservations: Call ahead weekend nights

Credit cards: Yes

Handicapped accessible: Street level entrance with spacious dining in main room

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