Light from the setting sun streams in through the storefront windows of The Palace International, its golden warmth amplifying a rustically exotic mood set by potted palms, floral tablecloths and African art hung on walls the colors of ripe mangoes and tropical foliage.
A little discreet eavesdropping reveals that the party of four seated near our table are Duke graduate students, and that the gentleman with a laptop in the corner is from Africa. Outside, a young man plays haunting tunes on a recorderlike flute at a sidewalk table, stopping only when his food is served. It doesn't take much imagination to forget that we're dining in a restaurant on Broad Street in Durham, and picture ourselves half a world away.
The exotic setting and internationally diverse clientele are a suitable backdrop for the menu, which showcases the food of owner/chef Caren Ochola's native Kenya. Novices to the cuisine will likely be surprised at its variety. Historic influences on the cultures of eastern Africa are reflected in a global range of flavors, from the spices of India and the Caribbean, to the fish and chips of England.
Beef samosa, a Kenyan twist on the universally popular Indian appetizer, is a savory introduction to the cuisine, serving up a mildly seasoned filling of loose ground beef in a classically crisp triangular crust. Another first course option listed as "baked turnover" turns out to be essentially a Jamaican patty, filled with your choice of beef, chicken or vegetables. The filling in the vegetable turnover I sampled was fine, but the crust was dauntingly tough on one side. Gor-maia chicken wings, marinated overnight in a blend of ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin and curry, then baked (or fried, if you ask), are much more successful.
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An entree offering of curry goat reveals its Caribbean influence in the allspice notes of its spice blend, though the Kenyan version is less pungent and more lightly sauced. Minimal saucing is, in fact, a recurring theme among a number of entrees -- characteristic of a cuisine that evolved in a culture where eating implements were scarce, according to Ochola. But, as dishes such as Nairobian beef (lean, chewy-tender sirloin tips sauteed with onion, tomato, cilantro and cayenne) demonstrate, minimal sauce doesn't mean minimal flavor.
Chicken Karanga delivers both in the form of the gingery curry-spiced sauce that blankets boneless diced chicken and a medley of sauteed vegetables. The sauce was doubly welcome when I tried it, as the chicken itself was on the dry side. Happily, I encountered no such problem with a tilapia filet sauteed with onions, lemon and cilantro in a delicate cream sauce.
Most entrees are served with two side dishes, including your choice of basmati rice or ugali, a boiled cornmeal dish whose texture is between polenta and a dense bread. Additional sides, particularly fried sweet plantains, are well worth the $2 surcharge.
You might even spring for one of The Palace's vegetarian entrees to share as a side dish, even if you don't order one as your main dish. Maharagwe ya nazi, red pinto beans cooked in coconut milk with ginger and cayenne, was the surprise hit at the table the night I ordered it. If you're feeling adventurous, you might even want to try an entree -- that's right, an entree -- of creamy peanut butter cooked with black pepper and other spices. While you're at it, you might as well have a vegetable for dessert, too, in the form of an exceptionally moist, locally baked carrot cake.
Service is unhurried and laid back, at times so laid back that you'll find yourself having to summon your waiter for another Tusker beer or Nairobian punch. Given that Ochoa and her husband, Maurice, are experienced restaurateurs (The Palace International is the reincarnation of a restaurant the couple owned in downtown Durham for over a decade), I wouldn't be surprised to see service smooth out over time.
On the other hand, as long as you're dining against a sun-splashed backdrop of African wildlife and exotic flute music, what's the hurry?