Palki: The best Indian restaurant on the North Shore

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      Palki is the Hindi word for a palanquin, a traditional curtain-covered box that carries a bride to her new marital home. Entering the North Vancouver restaurant called Palki, you too can have the feeling of being transported to a new destination.

      The first thing you notice is the typical South Asian cooking aromas–notably cumin and garam masala. Manager Savio Perreia, an extrovert whose roots go back to Goa, greets many customers by name, whereas the Sikh owner, Bhupinder Mroke, is usually found lingering behind the counter. When asked if he has anything special planned for the restaurant for Diwali, the pan-Indian celebration of the Hindu new year that occurs on Friday (November 9) this year, Mroke laughs. "Not really," he says.

      Mroke owned two Indian restaurants in Vancouver and one in Seattle with his brother Kamal before opening Palki eight years ago; Kamal owns the India Bistro on Davie Street.

      Palki's interior is more refined than that of many Indian restaurants in the Lower Mainland. It isn't as ornate as Maurya on West Broadway or Mumbai Masala in North Vancouver, and it doesn't have the warmth of Chutney Villa on East Broadway, with its lovely South Indian statues of the Hindu gods Hanuman and Ganesh, but Palki makes up for this with its homey atmosphere.

      Mroke, a veteran restaurateur, chose a simple approach with his latest renovation a year ago: the darkened room, adorned with functional furniture, conveys a message that the restaurant is affordable but certainly not bottom-of-the-barrel. You won't find any garish art here, just the gentle sound of Bollywood music playing quietly in the background.

      Shakti Chand, the cook at Palki, understands that the beauty of butter chicken is in its simplicity. He goes a little lighter on the spices than most Indian chefs, preferring a creamier, uncomplicated sauce. He delivers the correct amount of cardamom to complement the basic tomato flavour. This stands in contrast to many Indian restaurants that load up their butter chicken with garam masala powder rather than natural cloves and cardamom, resulting in an overdone dish.

      Some South Asians will say that a good butter chicken can be determined in part by its colour–it should be orange, not red or brown. It's always orange at Palki. And the portions are comfortable for two.

      Historically, butter chicken was a Mughal dish introduced by the Muslim dynasty that ruled the subcontinent before the British arrived. Mughals also brought tandoori chicken and naan to what is now northwestern India and Pakistan.

      Some local Indian restaurants serve naan that is more like pita bread than what you would find in a restaurant in India. Palki, on the other hand, delivers the real deal. Be careful, though–if you gobble up too much of the thick naan here, there won't be room in your stomach for anything else, because it's extremely filling.

      Other meat dishes worth ordering at Palki include the Lamb Rogan Josh ($10.95), a boneless lamb dish, and the Murgh Coconut ($10.50), which is chicken with coconut and cilantro. In both instances, there is a delightful mix of spices that other Indian restaurants in the region would be wise to emulate. However, if you prefer whitewashed Indian food, Palki is not for you. It would be best to head off to a hyped fusion joint like Rangoli.

      If Palki has a weakness, it's that the vegetarian fare isn't as innovative as the meat entrées. Of the 10 vegetable dishes, the Saag Paneer ($9.95) is the best–a succulent combination of puréed spinach with ginger and garlic. It's a marvellous complement to the butter chicken. However, two other vegetable dishes, the Gobi Aloo and the Navrattan Korma, can be too oily and lack definition.

      The service is prompt and friendly at Palki. Savio Perreia seems to knock himself out to ensure diners have a memorable experience. He's so prominent that many diners probably mistake him for the owner. He's one reason why Palki remains one of the Lower Mainland's top Indian restaurants.

      Link: Palki Restaurant

      PALKI  is at 116 East 15th Street, North Vancouver, 604-986-7555. Open daily 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and every day except Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.