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First, a confession. It was the naughty spirit of comic adventure that propelled me toward Heaven on Earth.
I found a certain puckish joy in the idea of a "gourmet" Thai-Indian vegetarian restaurant parked downtown at the Heaven on Earth Plaza Hotel -- that shabby Days Inn taken over by corporate followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the transcendental meditation guru. The eatery's lofty name and loftier goals tickled my irony bone: by serving food "prepared according to the ancient Ayur-vedic system of nutrition," Heaven on Earth proposed to make Houstonians "healthy, wealthy and wise." It pleased me to imagine downtown's captains of industry partaking of the restaurant's multicourse "pacifying diet" lunches.
So off I went, curious to see if such drolly named specialties as Self-Referral Soup and Dynamic Pakora could improve my bank balance -- or my mood. Two visits and many $8-$10 dishes later, I am somewhat poorer; I am also more than a little cheerful that there are some gifted new Thai chefs in town, even though they are holding forth in surroundings that are more than a little odd. "I get the feeling that Lynn and Doug Wyatt have either been here or are on their way, magic crystals and all," joked one of my more irreverent guinea pigs, sniffing Heaven on Earth's incense-freighted air as a saffron-robed, wispy-bearded monk strolled through. No captains of industry were in sight, although a politically wired downtown power couple and a prosperous suburban duo were in attendance.
Anyone who treasures a fine mee krob or Thai glass-noodle salad will find that Heaven on Earth's versions actually induce the exaltation invoked by the restaurant's high-flown (if slightly fractured) menu prose, which touts such oddities as "Wanton Delight" and decrees that "Happy cook creates divine food which thrills the physiology in bliss." Bliss or no bliss, this converted hotel coffeeshop is not for everyone. Service nuts should stay home, since the entire place is manned by a beleaguered host who is maitre d', captain, waiter and busboy rolled into one; that's fine when there's a single table to contend with, disastrous when there are eight.
Those who are badly spooked by ghost-town vibes should think twice about showing up, too. A preternatural hush clings to the hotel's dreary public spaces, which have a disconsolate air that shrieks "tax write-off"; one half-expects tumbleweeds to bounce through. The restaurant is likewise muted, save for the anti-stress noodlings of bamboo-flute tapes. Even when you are blessed with fellow diners (by no means guaranteed), they tend to blend quietly into Heaven on Earth's program, which is long on harmony and balance, short on any semblance of lively fun. The wisecracking, guffawing and cynical political gossip my friends are prone to seemed hopelessly inappropriate among Heaven on Earth's feathery bamboo palms, pretty Thai umbrellas and insistent calm.
But boy, did we eat well. The Thai soups sing with the thrilling authority of Pavarotti; it's hard to believe that all-vegetable broths can achieve such depth. Thai buffs will recognize the mystifyingly dubbed Self-Referral Soup as a tom yum, heady with lime and fragrant lemon grass and pungent shards of ginger, fleshed out with mushrooms and charged with a tiny, explosively hot red chile. The coconut-milk soup is just as exciting; again, watch out for that wicked little chile lurking in the bottom. You might think you'd miss the chicken or shrimp or squid that fortify these soups in most Thai restaurants. You won't.
Spring rolls come fried or steamed here, and the steamed ones are swell: cool, delicate, rolled with a subtle salad of glass noodles and tofu and mushroom and bean sprouts, served with a tart-sweet dip. Mee krob, that crisp and finespun fried-noodle snack, practically tap-dances out of the kitchen. Threaded with tart tamarind filaments, freshened with bean sprouts and cilantro, it jumps with superbly balanced flavors -- sweet, sour, savory, earthy, like cocktail-party food from Jupiter.
Heaven on Earth managed to remind me how versatile and appealing tofu can be -- grilled, deep-fried, minced, cut into silky cubes, it worked everywhere it landed. The unlikely-sounding tofu sate urged on us by our soft-spoken Indian host was a surprise hit: grilled to achieve an interestingly chewy skin, the bean-curd slabs rode long wooden skewers and wore a complex, dry-fried spice mix alive with cumin, garlic and coriander.
Perhaps in tune with the restaurant's harmonic aspirations, the kitchen does not deal in the exuberantly lethal heat that can characterize Thai food. Gang keaw wan, the Thai green curry, is so gentled by coconut milk that its eggplant, bean curd, peas, sweet peppers and foresty dried mushrooms could be served at a River Oaks Garden Club luncheon -- doubtless to great acclaim, and many requests for cuttings of the anise-scented Thai basil that perfumes the dish.
Yellow masa mun curry rich with pumpkin, whole peanuts, cauliflower and deliciously crusty deep-fried bean curd is another instance in which gentle does not equal boring. But the cooks cut loose a bit on the fabulous Blossoming Fried Rice, in which tart fresh pineapple meets yellow curry and a peppery undertow, and on the brilliantly seasoned lab wunsen, or glass-noodle salad. Lime gives it its kick; sesame seeds and a mince of bean curd give it textural character. Fine, fine stuff.
Indeed, only two of the Thai dishes I sampled here left me unmoved. A basil-and-
ginger-spiked stir fry of eggplant and tofu was perfectly nice, perfectly unexciting. And pad Thai, the rice-stick pasta for which I have exacting standards, proved gummy and off-puttingly red.
There's Indian food on the menu, and it's not bad, but it pales beside the Thai dishes. Sag paneer was a one-note affair of faintly tart, very pureed spinach and rubbery homemade white cheese. Indian breads like potato-stuffed aloo paratha and puffy little whole-wheat pooris made better choices, although their cilantro and yogurt sauces seemed unduly laid back ... er, harmonic. Samosa turnovers of spiced potato were on the pasty side. But the Dynamic Pakoras -- herby mixed-vegetable fritters -- lived up to their name.
Alcohol joins meat, seafood and eggs on Heaven on Earth's non grata list. Instead there are esoteric remedial teas meant to counter feelings of irritability, lethargy, restlessness and the like, plus an oddly engaging "coffee alternative" called Raja's Cup that suggests a milky coffee-tea hybrid. All are on sale at the counter, natch, along with TM tracts and official Maharishi catalogs offering everything from spices to bamboo-flute tapes. My theory that life has become synonymous with product placement seems more valid by the second. Today, a Denny's sweatshirt; tomorrow, Maharishi aromatherapy oils.
If there is any proselytizing here, however, it is of the discreetest sort. Our host pressed a product catalog on me as I left, and on another occasion gave me an Ayur-vedic health tome to read while I waited for my companions.
All in all, Heaven on Earth seems more of a novelty act than a serious restaurant. It is meant to be the prototype for a chain operated by the Maharishi-related WPEC corporation in the hotels they've been snapping up all over the country. The monk who roams the premises, Budha Charan, has owned vegetarian restaurants in Thailand -- indeed, his charming sister and his nephew are the kitchen geniuses here in Houston. But there's no wait staff -- literally -- which means the place can't run smoothly. Dishes routinely arrive without serving spoons, and getting a water refill can be nearly impossible. Perhaps the relentlessly soothing music and calming teas are supposed to offset such worldly concerns. They don't.
Still, I got the offbeat adventure I came for, and the kind of Thai food that could lure me back. A good mee krob is hard to find.
Heaven on Earth, Heaven on Earth Plaza Hotel, 801 Calhoun, 659-2222.