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A large painting on the wall at Restaurant Indika depicts Indian musicians with sitars and tablas in an anachronistic cubist style. You don't see many painters doing cubism these days, my dining companion, an art lover from Montrose, remarks. She walks across the empty dining room to inspect the painting more closely. She is immediately met by the hostess, Anita Jaisinghani, and to my chagrin, the two are quickly engaged in a long conversation about art in India. Struggling to maintain my anonymity, I attempt to look engrossed in the menu.
Indika is located in a little white house that looks like a miniature English castle tucked incongruously behind a row of retail businesses on Memorial Drive near Beltway 8. The entranceway doubles as a bar. One wall of the main dining room is covered with mirrors, which reflect the greenery seen through the windows on the other side of the room. The floors are red tile set in an imaginative pattern. Behind the main dining room, a delightful maze of private rooms offers more intimate seating options. The artwork, the fabrics and much of the furnishings are imported from India, Jaisinghani explains to my friend. But as aesthetically pleasing as the little cottage and its trappings may be, the artistry here is in the cooking.
Twin towers of golden-brown crab-stuffed samosas and a little dish of shocking-pink chutney are creatively presented on a unique triangular plate amid a salad of shaved cucumbers sprinkled with sesame seeds. The appetizer is called crabmeat samosas with papaya-ginger chutney, and it's a stunning departure from the usual Indian food in Houston -- not only in its chic presentation but in its very conception. Who ever heard of a samosa stuffed with crabmeat? Or a chutney made of papaya?
Crabmeat samosas with papaya-ginger chutney: $8
Warm spinach with paneer and cornmeal nan: $6
Roasted half-eggplant filled with paneer and cashews: $12
Duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry: $18
Halibut in coconut broth: $20
When the pastries have cooled enough, I break off a big chunk and dip it in the chutney. The tender lumps of rich, sea-scented crabmeat and the crunchy samosa skin come to life under the jolt of the electrifying chutney. The fresh ginger gives the viscous relish a zesty intensity that reminds me of marmalade. After wolfing both samosas, I find myself cleaning up the rest of the chutney with the fresh, crunchy papadams, a spoon and anything else I can find.
The art lover orders warm spinach along with an Indian cheese called paneer. But the seemingly familiar dish looks nothing like the buffet-line saag paneer she was expecting. The round bowl of pureed spinach and mustard greens is bright Astroturf green and seductively spiced with aromatic fenugreek. It is served with warm cornmeal nan on the side.
Between our appetizers and main courses, we are served the most stunning nan bread I have ever eaten. There are three varieties: the same cornmeal nan that came with the spinach, which tastes a little like corn bread; long, soft, doughy pieces of regular nan brushed with ghee (clarified butter); and, my favorite, nan stuffed with scallions and cilantro. The crispy round bread stuffed with soft onions reminds me of a really good Neapolitan pizza right out of the oven. The hot breads are served with a side dish of yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger, cumin and chiles. It looks a bit like refried beans and makes a spectacular dip.
Montrose girl orders a roasted half-eggplant filled with paneer and cashews. The vegetarian entrée is served with roasted potatoes and cauliflower on the side, and topped with big roasted cashews. The filling of pureed roasted eggplant, onions, grated paneer and cashews is pleasantly thick and gently flavored with a freshly ground masala. The texture calls to mind a vegetarian moussaka.
For my main course, I try duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry. The skin of the big meaty portion of duck has been crisped in the tandoori oven, and I carefully carve each bite to include a little of the crunchy exterior. This is Maple Leaf duck from Illinois; it is meatier and more full-flavored than the Long Island ducklings that Americans are used to. The hot and spicy almond curry is redolent of cumin seed, cloves and anise. When it comes to chiles, Indika doesn't pull any punches.
There is plenty of heat in the curry and in the yellow lentils. I'm drinking a crisp and hoppy British India Pale Ale with my dinner, and it goes well enough with the food. But now I wish I'd ordered wine. It's rare that I want to drink wine with spicy food, but it's also rare to find spicy food with this level of complexity.
As I eat the duck, I marvel at the chef's attention to detail. Every aspect, from appearance to aroma to flavor, has been thought out to an astonishing degree. If you've never seen tandoori duck before (I hadn't), it's easy to get caught up in the novelty of the main attraction and miss all the side touches -- the toasted almonds on the deep brown curry, for instance. Along with their distinct perfume, the almonds provide a rich flavor, a stark color contrast and a fabulous crunchiness to the sauce. Alongside the duck and sauce, there is a stack of firm little haricots verts (green beans) and a mound of fluffy white basmati rice studded with currants.