Review: Palace at the Ben

The Palace at the Ben recently opened in the stodgy and stuffy Benjamin Franklin Building near Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Flowing fabric, ornate furniture, white linens, and decadent booths adorn this massive space. Like my Mama would have said, “This joint is very foo-foo!” So we know the d�cor is mad and moneyed maharajah, but how is the food? Can it live up to the atmosphere?

If you’re an isolationistic eater like myself, let the knowledgeable and attentive Palace staff dispel your provincial misconceptions about Indian cuisine. First, not all Indian food is spicy. There are over 60 spices used to flavor Indian cuisine and only two of them are hot: red chili powder and tiny green chilies. Secondly, Indian doesn’t automatically mean curry, curry and more curry. If you like it, there is plenty to order with curry in it, but don’t allow dislike of the stuff shy you away from a good Indian meal. The Palace chefs are very accommodating to any personal preference.

I dropped by the Palace with a friend for lunch, it seemed a bit more upscale then our normal options of Qdoba and Wendy's. After studying the menu, I opted for the non-vegetarian Thali ($14.95). Thali (Hindi meaning plate) is a selection of different dishes, usually served in small bowls on a round tray, giving me a quick bite of many of the dinner menu’s entrees.

Typical Thali dishes include rice, dal, vegetables, chapati, papad, curd (yogurt) and chutney. My Thali showcased the fantastic Cashmere Chicken (in a mild cream with cashews and raisins), the delicious lamb of the day, and the Navratan Korma (9 veggies in a coconut cream sauce). Accompanying this terrific trio was some papadam (lentil flat breads), raita (cucumber and yogurt with mint), and deal (thick, spicy stew), buttery naan (flatbread), rice, dal makhani (a dip made from seven variety of lentils).

My companion opted for the Tandoori Combo ($12.95). Quick Indian cooking factoid: A tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven in which food is cooked over a charcoal fire, with the temperatures sometimes scorching up to 900�F. It is a fixture in Indian restaurants, since the food cooked in a tandoor retains all the juices and taste inside and hence is considered very healthy. The combo featured Chicken Tikka (tender and moist chicken braised in tomatoes and spices), the multi-meat Seekh kebab and the expected and aptly named chicken tandoori.

The favorite of the trio was the seekh kebab, but only by a nose. Having noshed on all three, and I’d have no problem ordering a full plate of any of them at another sitting. If this is what tandoori meat tastes like, then it’s high time a tandoor became an open option for American kitchens.

Palace At Ben features a wide range of cocktails, appetizers and desserts, so if lunch isn’t a possibility, keep them in mind for other gastronomic fun. But if your in the Washington Square West neighborhood, and want a healthy and upscale lunch, consider the Palace. It might not be Qdoba or Wendy’s, but good lord who wants it to be? Palace At Ben brings Philadelphia a gourmet and classy taste of India, but at prices that even the plastic fork crowd can afford.

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