Shirley Nicole Fonner
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After backing out of retirement for the second time, Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in 2001 to play some solid ball for the Washington Wizards. But this time around — his scoring average dipped by more than 30 percent in his two seasons on the court in D.C. — he was no longer the Mike we wanted to be like.
Whether you're an out-to-pasture athlete who still has the itch or a closed restaurant eyeing a return to business, there's nothing tougher than mounting a comeback. After a two-year hiatus from Philadelphia's restaurant scene, the wildly popular Indian restaurant Minar Palace has returned. Now, it faces the same scrutiny that confronts every gilded champion who checks back in after hanging up his shoes.
In some ways, former glory is the greatest obstacle to a triumphant return. This is particularly true with Minar, given how highly it was (and still is) regarded. Philadelphia has a rich dining scene, but there are some areas in which it lacks depth. In the not too distant past, one of those areas was Indian cuisine. Sure, there were a handful of restaurants around, but during those bleak times, Minar was a true port in the storm.
Back in the day, chef Tarsem Singh and his family served up tasty Northern Indian classics at ridiculously low prices. It was fast food, but it was good food. Part of the charm was its narrow, sparsely decorated space on Sansom near 16th. In line with the humble décor, orders came out on flimsy paper plates. It was the kind of hidden gem that you looked forward to talking up to anyone who would listen. In 2006, right around the time Singh was thinking about retiring, the restaurant's lease expired. On July 21, 2006, Minar served its last order and closed up shop. To fans, it was like losing a friend.
The family had no plans to reopen the restaurant after it closed, says Davinder Singh, Tarsem's son and manager of the newly reopened Minar Palace at 13th and Walnut. But former customers kept stopping them on the streets and asking them to come back. "We never realized how much people liked it," Davinder says. Given the outpouring of support, the family persuaded dad to get back in the kitchen.
Two years after a tearjerker retirement (actually, two years, one month and 20 days, but who's counting?), Singh is back in business.
But in many ways — perhaps due to all the hype surrounding its return — the new Minar Palace is a bit of a letdown. To be fair, in its absence, the local dining landscape has grown to feature far more options in the area of Indian cuisine. And as that facet of the scene evolved, so, too, have our palates. While Minar's plates are solid, reliable classics, today they don't stand out as much as they once did.
The yogurt-based lamb korma is a safe bet, but it doesn't have the luxurious richness I have come to love when it's made with cashews, like some other restaurants do. The goat vindaloo is armed with the intense heat one expects, but outside of that it's a one-note dish that doesn't deliver the complexity to which I've grown accustomed. But though you may not go out of your way for Minar's offerings, you can't go wrong if you're looking for a quick bite to satisfy a lunchtime curry craving.
Indeed, it was during lunch that I discovered my current favorite dish, the brinjal bartha. The body of this mouth-watering plate comes not from curry, but from roasted pieces of eggplant that are mashed into a deep, comforting sauce. Other vegetarian delights are also satisfying. Homemade cheese is a highlight in the creamy saag paneer. Tender lentils dal tadka provide the perfect vehicle for coriander and chili to shine. This dish pairs well with the 2007 Gunderloch Jean-Baptiste Riesling Kabinett, priced at $20.99 through the PLCB. Because this wine is a Kabinett — a German term for wine made from grapes picked at the time of harvest — it will not only have sweetness to moderate the food's spiciness, but it will also be balanced by a refreshing wave of acidity that will lift up the food's flavors.
Unfortunately, not all of Minar's shortcomings can be excused by the evolution of the marketplace. Both the seekh kebab appetizer and the chicken tikka masala were unforgivably dry. And what once was a pleasant charm at the old location has now turned into liability. When you're running a bare-bones shop, paper plates, plastic silverware and plastic cups show that you're keeping it real. But the upscale décor Minar is now sporting — finished mahogany tables and dark handmade wood wall panels complemented by maroon and gold colors — sets a higher standard. I understand that the picnic-style plating keeps prices low for its customers, but if Minar wants to be taken as seriously as the décor suggests, it needs to upgrade its china.
The restaurant's also going through some growing pains in terms of its hours of operation. Currently, Minar closes at 7 p.m. on Saturday, which is far too early to satisfy the eager throng of weekend diners. At the original location, an early close was fine, since Sansom doesn't draw an exceeding amount of foot traffic on a Saturday night. But Walnut's different. Davinder tells me that Saturday hours likely will be extended to 9 pm., but that still may not be enough: According to the menu, the last seating is "one hour prior to posted closing time," which would be 8 p.m.
Much like MJ, Minar Palace is more than just another player in a jersey — it's an institution. And for that, it deserves respect. Jordan played his last professional basketball game here in Philadelphia, tallying a paltry 15 points and throwing down just one dunk. Still, as he walked off the court after sinking the last two free throws of his career, the 21,257 fans in attendance gave him a three-minute standing ovation. Minar may not have all the tools to recapture the Indian food throne outright, but chef Singh still has plenty of game. If, or when, he decides to hang up his apron again — which hopefully won't be for a long time — I'll certainly be on my feet clapping. I wager you will, too.
Minar Palace | 1304 Walnut St., 215-546-9443
Hours: Mon.-Fri.11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Sun.
Appetizers, $1.95-$8.95; Entrées, $6.95-$12.95