656 Millersport Hwy., Amherst, NY 14255
Pros: Unique to Western New York, this South Indian restaurant focuses exclusively on vegetarian fare, specializing in unsweetened crepe-like dosas of various types, as well as nice curries and good Indian desserts. Reasonable pricing, food quality has improved from past.
Cons: Shabby interior and certain off items, including staples such as breads and rice, can detract from an otherwise pleasant dining experience; needs a good cleaning.
"While the setting still isn't quite fit for a visit from the king, the new and improved Palace of Dosas has taken a major step up in food quality from what we experienced last year."
As we prepared to drive past the Palace of Dosas in Amherst for what seemed like the twentieth time in recent weeks, Christina asked a fair question: what does an "under new management" sign mean, really? A change in staff? Better food? Or merely a different owner running the business the same old way? Certainly, we'd visited places where a new manager had done nothing to improve what was inside. But at this entirely vegetarian South Indian restaurant - one that for three months has worn a change-proclaiming banner larger than its name on the front facade - a change at the top has indeed made a difference, and a good one.
"Unimpressive and oily" would sum up our memories of Palace of Dosas from one year ago: we had visited with a large group, including several people highly familiar with Indian food, and found little reason to return. "Dosas," the eponymous menu item, are extra-large, thin, and unsweetened crepes made from ground rice and black lentils, sometimes semolina or wheat, that generally have been golden fried in oil, folded, and served with or without a stuffing. Though they're easy to find in Toronto, they're all but impossible to find on Western New York menus. So on that occasion, we'd tried many variants - the puffy wheat flour ones, butter-fried rice ones, and the standard oil and rice version. None was particularly compelling. The same was true of non-dosa items our group ordered; at best, we'd say the food was worthy of a star and a half, and we weren't surprised to see a sign go up in front. As-was, the Palace struck us as only a little short of a royal mess.
So once that very conspicuous "new ownership" sign appeared on the front face of Palace of Dosas, we were naturally suspicious: how much could have changed? Was it even worth re-visiting the place? We hemmed and hawed for a while, then attempted a visit, found the place closed - it's not open on Mondays or Tuesdays, or until 5:30 for dinner - and randomly opted to return another day. What we found was that while the "new" Palace of Dosas is basically the same inside, which is to say fine but less than impressively decorated or maintained, its food has definitely and considerably improved. It's still not in the big leagues, and may never aspire to further glory, but at least it's heading in the right direction.
Thanks to both spelling and selection differences, the menu may be a little daunting if you're not familiar with South Indian food - specifically, Dravidian cuisine rather than the locally far more common, meat-focused dishes of Northern India. Rather than the well-known naan bread found at most Indian restaurants, Palace of Dosas serves only Chappati ($3-$6) and Poori ($5-$7, aka Puri), charcoaled flat and fried puffed breads, respectively. We ordered the plain, pita-like Chappati and found it to be at roughly room temperature and utterly dull, like a store-bought pita. It wasn't a good start, and certainly the low of the meal.
But almost everything else was pretty good. Undeterred from our last visit, we tried a dosa again - this time, the Mysore Masala Dosa ($7.55), a thin, slightly spiced rice and lentil crepe with a core of yellow, spicy potatoes and onions. Given our prior experience, we were surprised when this dosa arrived in beautifully golden form, without any trace of grease; its filling was ready to be spread out and eaten in bite-size pieces. While it wasn't stunning on flavor, merely a slightly spiced thin rice pancake with that starchy center, we certainly enjoyed the dish; it also included a bowl of Sambar, a savory little cup of tomato and tamarind-flavored vegetable stew that is never explained on the menu, but adds to the plate's value.
We were similarly pleased with the Utthappam - a thicker, more pancake-like "Indian Style Pizza" also made from rice and lentil flour, but with a different consistency. Ours was ordered with mixed vegetables - onions, carrots, tomatoes and peas, a $9 combination - and we found it soft, warm, and relatively mild in flavor, ready to dip in the included cool chutney. The Utthappam pleased the member of our group who feared that she wouldn't be able to find anything to eat on the menu; it was nothing more daunting than eating vegetables that were integrated colorfully into a thin circle of bread.
Two of our picks served as nice representations of the menu's 18-item list of vegetable entrees: one, the Chana Masala ($9), was a delicious bowl of whole chick peas in a spicy red sauce, served with an equivalent portion of rice; the other was the Eggplant Curry ($9), with clearly fresh bits of chopped, slightly sweet eggplant floating in a rich, delicious brown sauce; it too was served with a generous rice dish. Even amongst the two "curry-adverse" members of our group, who generally steer clear of such items at most Indian restaurants, the Eggplant Curry was a hit: eggplant, not strong spice, was the dominant smell and flavor, and the sauce worked very well with the rice. It proved that there's hope yet for those who reflexively recoil from curry, but also sated those of us who love curries.
There were a few disappointments. One of five rice dishes, the Lemon Rice ($8), was supposed to be a lemon-flavored Basmati rice, and arrived predictably yellow, with grains roughly the size one would expect from the thin, fragrant Indian staple. Unexpectedly, it came more than modestly flecked with hot peppers, startling and proving too much for the normally spice-tolerant person who ordered it; others of us found it unobjectionable. By contrast, the free plain Basmati rice included at no charge with the two vegetarian entrees were identical in quantity, but didn't appear to be Basmati on first glance. Our server explained, unapologetically and bluntly, that they had been overcooked. Okay, then. And finally, an attempt to order salad was turned down on the grounds that the in-stock ingredients weren't fresh enough, which we suppose was better than being served them to discover as much ourselves. These little issues and a certain interior dinginess - roughly 10 burnt-out lightbulbs, less than sparkling windows, and so on - were amongst a number of signs that Palace of Dosas' new ownership still has some wrinkles to iron out, even months after taking possession.
We were willing to forgive most of the little issues after ordering two desserts, one of which - the Badam Halwa with Pistachio Ice Cream ($5) - was described by one of us as near-total redemption. Green, creamy, and fresh, with chunks of pistachio inside, the ice cream was a marvelous cold accompaniment to the warm, buttery almond and saffron halwa found in the bottom of the tall dish. There was enough there to share, and we did, excitedly. The Gulab Gamun ($3.55), a traditional Indian dessert made from hot, dough-like balls of milk that have been fried and soaked in a honey-like syrup, was good but not as distinctive. We've had it and enjoyed it at many other local restaurants; certainly no one would have any complaints about this version.
While the setting still isn't quite fit for a visit from the king, the new and improved Palace of Dosas has taken a major step up in food quality from what we experienced last year: based on the less than thoroughly impressive current state of Indian food in Amherst, we'd sooner stop here than at some of our old haunts, though the menus at both Kabab & Curry and Tandoori's will still appeal more to fans of familiar North Indian cuisine. Consider this venue especially worthy of a visit if you're a vegetarian or looking for something different; the quality, prices and portions have a good chance of leaving you satisfied.