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At Discovery Indian Cuisine in Palm Harbor, a lesson in flavor

Review | Indian restaurant from husband-and-wife duo delivers a takeout game with gusto.
Chettinad chicken is served with fresh shredded coconut and aromatic spices along with basmati rice and garlic naan at Discovery Indian Cuisine in Palm Harbor.
Chettinad chicken is served with fresh shredded coconut and aromatic spices along with basmati rice and garlic naan at Discovery Indian Cuisine in Palm Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 15
Updated Feb. 18

Ask Swarn Singh about the menu at Discovery Indian Cuisine and you’ll likely get a detailed explanation of each dish’s origins and ingredients.

He might tell you about how saag paneer, a staple of Punjabi cuisine, is made with mustard leaves, fenugreek leaves and spinach, to name just a few. He’ll explain how the greens are cooked for several hours over a wood fire and how at the very last minute the dish will get its signature spice blend of ginger, garlic, onions and a knob of butter, or ghee.

If you ask him about the channa masala, he will tell you about how the northern Indian hallmark gets its kick from dried pomegranate seeds and green mango powder. Get him started on his homemade tamarind sauce and he will sing the fruit praises for its detoxification benefits. And if you inquire about the goat biryani, he’ll shyly admit that the cooking vessels he uses are different from those used in traditional biryani houses in Hyderabad, where just one dish is cooked in large quantities. Here, Singh says, not enough people order biryani to warrant it (but they should — it’s that good).

Singh has never operated a restaurant of his own before. In fact, he’s never really cooked in a professional capacity at all. But the food at this Palm Harbor restaurant tells an entirely different story.

Paneer tikka is marinated in yogurt and spices and baked in a clay pot.
Paneer tikka is marinated in yogurt and spices and baked in a clay pot. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

Singh, 31, hails from the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, and his style of cooking is heavily influenced by his upbringing in that region. He moved to the United States several years ago to pursue a master’s degree and worked in hotel management in both India and Fort Myers. Somewhere along the way, the restaurant business was calling.

In early 2020, right at the onset of the pandemic, he opened Discovery Indian Cuisine at a small strip mall off U.S. 19 and E Klosterman Road.

Things didn’t work out right away. Singh left the business temporarily while his partner took over. Then, in November, Singh returned to the restaurant and now runs it with his wife, Evelyn. In April, the couple are expecting their first child. The business has all the hallmarks of a small husband-and-wife operation.

Most days, Evelyn works the front of the house — answering phones, scribbling down to-go orders while simultaneously waiting on a handful of tables in the tiny restaurant. Her husband runs the kitchen, popping out from time to time to help when the line of customers gets too long or the phone won’t stop ringing.

Five tables line the narrow dining room, which is outfitted with robin’s-egg blue walls and red brick accents. Takeout appears to be a strong element of the business and an online ordering portal includes an option for curbside pickup.

Chettinad chicken is served with basmati rice and garlic naan.
Chettinad chicken is served with basmati rice and garlic naan. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

The food here travels well, and it’s a delight when, after a 40-minute drive home, my channa masala ($12.95) is still piping hot, flavored with cumin and chock-full of tomatoes and onions. Chewy garlic naan ($3.95) is baked in a clay oven and tucked into a sheath of aluminum foil, which helps keep it soft and pliable. (Once it hits the air for too long or the refrigerator, it quickly hardens.) The bread is great dipped into any number of curries and sauces here, or paired with one of two chutneys ($2.95 each) — a sweet, syrupy tamarind version or the fresh and snappy mint and cilantro one.

Though many of the dishes carry a northern Indian influence, the Chettinad chicken ($15.95) hails from its namesake region in the south, arriving swathed in a creamy sauce thick with coconut milk and shredded coconut flakes. Juicy chicken bits are marinated in yogurt, ginger and garlic for several hours and arrive in a sauce flavored with turmeric, cumin, coriander, curry leaves and garam masala. Ladle that atop a bed of fluffy basmati rice perfumed with cardamom pods and it’s hard to stop.

The flavors are bright and strong, and the kitchen won’t shy away from spice if you say the word. For a middle-of-the-road heat, the medium will deliver a strong punch without the pain. Anything higher and you’re in serious spice territory. Even the yogurt and cucumber raita ($3.95) — though it still delivers as a fail-safe coolant — is flavored with chaat masala spice and carries its own whisper of heat.

The Hyderabadi-style biryani served at Discovery Indian Cuisine features basmati rice cooked with goat spiced with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks.
The Hyderabadi-style biryani served at Discovery Indian Cuisine features basmati rice cooked with goat spiced with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Raita also accompanies the goat biryani ($17.99), another southern Indian dish, where hunks of soft goat meat are cooked together with basmati rice, studded with whole slivers of cinnamon, cloves and coriander seeds so that the resulting dish shines with warm spice. Who cares if it’s not cooked in the same giant vessels as the biryani houses in Hyderabad? The dish is delicious.

If you do happen to be dining in the restaurant, there’s a small selection of wines and beers — including the Indian Taj Mahal (a medium-bodied lager) — and creamy, thick mango lassis, which, really, can double as dessert.

The menu here is vast, and I suspect Singh has more than a couple of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to specials and more knowledge to impart. Just ask. I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you all about it.

If you go

Where: 38593 US Hwy. 19 N, Palm Harbor. 727-935-5122. discoveryindian.com

Hours: Lunch, dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95 to $11.95; entrees, $12.99 to $17.99.

Don’t skip: Chettinad chicken, saag paneer, goat biryani.

Takeout/delivery: Online ordering plus curbside pickup available. Delivery offered through Grubhub.