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Veg Out

Giant crepes? Hot and spicy cereals? Anand Bhavan provides vegetarians with some exotic options.

Sev potato puri comes in a little red and white paper boat, the kind ballpark nachos are served in. With the chips underneath and the cilantro leaves on top, it kind of looks like a plate of nachos, too. But the chips are actually lentil crisps, and you eat them with a plastic spoon. They are mixed with cold cooked potato cubes and covered with whipped yogurt and sweet tamarind chutney. The girls decide the dish tastes like a wacky new breakfast cereal.

My daughter Katie has been eating "world food" all her life. But her friend Stefanie doesn't get out much. She lives with her grandmother, who isn't fond of driving. When she stayed at our house recently, she asked us to take her to some really exotic ethnic restaurants. Anand Bhavan seemed to fit the bill; it claims to be the "only restaurant to serve North/South and Gujrati Vegetarian Food." (I assume that means in Houston.)

As I started scanning the menu, I got confused. I didn't recognize anything. Surely they had a vegetable curry, vindaloo, nan bread or something that sounded familiar. Instead, I found items like this:

What Anand Bhavan lacks in atmosphere it makes up for with its exotic menu.
Troy Fields
What Anand Bhavan lacks in atmosphere it makes up for with its exotic menu.

"Village Platter: 2 Bajri or Corn Rotla with Gud, Makhan, 1 Vegetable, 1 Kathor, 1 Farsan, Rice or Khichadi, Kadhi, Picle & Papad $6.95."

I was looking for an exotic restaurant, and I guess I found one. The menu consisted entirely of items I didn't recognize from Indian regional cuisines that I had never heard of. Every time I dive into an ethnic eating experience here in Houston, the Ellis Island on the bayou, I end up over my head. It's both humbling and exciting. It is also refreshing to drop my familiar role of know-it-all and learn something for a change, to marvel at my food like the kids who accompany me.

I promise to do some research on Gujrati and South Indian cuisine and file a report soon. But luckily for now, nobody expects non-Indians to know much about the food at Anand Bhavan. To order your meal, you step up to the cash register and speak with head cook and order-taker Kokila Shah, who patiently explains the menu items using little pictures displayed on the counter. She will even help you navigate through the sections of Punjabi, Gujrati and South Indian specialties. Kokila is happy to recommend dishes for the dumbfounded.

She immediately knew the kids would like the sev potato puri ($2.50). When I told her I wanted hot and spicy, she pointed to bhel puri ($2.50). It is somewhat similar to sev potato puri, except it's made with puffed rice, crispy noodles and potato. The kids would have loved it if I hadn't asked for it hot. It tasted like Rice Krispies with a really hot green sauce poured over the top. And while that may be my idea of a cool breakfast cereal, the two 14-year-olds weren't going for it.

Besides us, there were two families with kids, one couple, and a man sitting alone eating in the restaurant, all apparently Indian. The restaurant is very clean and cheerful, but the color scheme is a bit mismatched, if you can call cobalt-blue Formica tables with red trim, blond bentwood chairs, black-and-white checkered floor tiles and seafoam-green walls with forest-green trim a "color scheme." The only framed pictures are enlargements of the same menu-item photos that are displayed by the cash register. There is Indian music on the sound system.

The most popular dish in the house seems to be the giant crispy dosa. There is one on every table. We ordered the masala dosa ($4.75). The rolled crispy lentil crepe is a good two feet long with a deceptively small pile of seasoned potatoes inside. The crepe is very crunchy; you break off pieces and dip them into the potato mixture, which is flavored with masala. Indian food enthusiasts order the giant brown pancakes in a variety of configurations: Mysore masala dosa ($4.95) is stuffed with a spicier potato filling, and rava dosa ($4.95) features a crepe made with cream of wheat, onion and ginger. The dosas are all served with a delightful green coconut chutney on the side.

Our last entrée was the most satisfying. Palak paneer ($4.75), a rich spinach dish, is on Anand Bhavan's Punjabi menu. It is normally served with rice, but we switched out the grains for the soft little round breads called pori. The spinach is exceptionally rich with clarified butter, and the pori are light and fluffy like fresh flour tortillas.

"Dad, isn't this creamed spinach?" my daughter asked.

"Well, sort of," I answered. "But without the cream."

I felt the carnivore's twinge at the end of the meal. The food was all delicious, but I was craving a couple of pork chops. The cereal, potato and lentil dishes we ate didn't pack enough protein for my taste. But I was very glad I went to Anand Bhavan anyway, because I found something I am wild about: Indian ice cream.

If you think pecan praline or Cherry Garcia is pretty good, wait until you taste my new all-time favorite ice cream flavor, saffron and pistachio. I find the intense aroma of saffron intoxicating when making paella or bouillabaisse; I am often accused of overusing the spice, perhaps a result of my heady reaction to it. No doubt people have been eating saffron and pistachio ice cream in India for many years, but it's new to me. I find the combinations absolutely inspired: the orange color accented with green polka dots, the smooth and crunchy texture, the rich spicy taste. Katie likes the Indian fruit flavor called chikoo, while Stefanie is crazy about rose ice cream. "It's like eating perfume!" she gushes.

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