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By Brooke Viggiano
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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Tandoori salmon, served in a sweet and tart cranberry and orange sauce, is one of the most interesting items you'll ever see at an Indian restaurant. And here at Ashiana, the upscale Indian restaurant on Briar Forest at Dairy Ashford, the salmon sits in the lunch buffet alongside a stunning array of lamb, chicken and beef curries, all vying for your attention on every trip to the steam table.
For appetizers, there's salad, several kinds of soup, the thin lentil crackers called papadams, and a huge assortment of chutneys, including classics like tamarind and mango, as well as such innovative blends as mint and pomegranate. I tried some split pea soup, which was interestingly flavored with masala, and some papadams with chutney and hot pickles.
When my lunchmate and I returned to our table from our first trip to the buffet, a server offered us bread. But instead of the plain nan we were expecting, he gave us several slices of hot Indian flatbread stuffed with loads of crushed pistachios. It was the first time I'd had pistachio-stuffed Indian bread, and I loved the stuff. It tasted like a pistachio butter sandwich.
12610 Briar Forest
Houston, TX 77077
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Lunch buffet: $13.95
Ashiana feast (for two): $55
Palak paneer: $10.95
Chicken saag: $18
Tandoori salmon appetizer: $7.95
On our second trip to the steam table, I found the vegetables even more tempting than the meats -- especially the rich and buttery spinach dish called palak paneer and the fiery, curried cauliflower. I also helped myself to more of the paella-like rice casserole called vegetable biryani. A different Basmati biryani is featured on Ashiana's buffet every day, but whether they're serving the mushroom, chicken or vegetable biryani, each is generously seasoned with whole cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper, and finished with lots of saffron, cream and butter.
My companion has long been a fan of another Indian lunch buffet closer to town, but by the time he got around to Ashiana's dessert selections, which include a heavenly mango mousse, he had conceded that this is by far the best Indian midday buffet in the city.
Kiran Verma, the Indian-born chef who founded Ashiana, has said that she set out to create an ambiance that would appeal to Westerners. True to form, Ashiana looks more British than Indian. There's a posh little room off of the main floor called the Polo Room. It's appointed with dark mahogany trim and decorated with paintings of polo ponies. Seating is also available in the wine cellar, an ornate space in the midst of the restaurant's extensive wine racks.
Some of Ashiana's food borders on fusion cuisine. The intention is to apply the traditions of Northern Indian Mogul cooking to ingredients that appeal to a mainstream Houston audience. The results are mixed. The tandoori salmon, with its chutney-like sauce of cranberries and oranges, is a joyful blend of cultures. But the tandoori lobster is an unmitigated disaster.
The lobster was supposed to be the grand finale of the $50-per-person four-course Indian seafood extravaganza my dining companion and I sampled on another visit. The first course was an innocuous lentil and tomato soup; the second was a crunchy crab samosa with papaya chutney; a spicy shrimp tandoori was third; and then came the wretched lobster.
It wasn't Maine lobster, but some kind of previously frozen tropical lobster tail served with melted butter. A pile of steamed vegetables dominated by shriveled English peas and cubed carrots came on the side. The lobster was dry, tough and chewy. Despite repeated dipping, it didn't absorb the butter.
I reasoned that the buttery spinach they serve on the buffet would be the perfect lubricant to help me choke down the rubbery lobster. So I called the waiter over and ordered palak paneer, which, to my chagrin, wasn't cheap. Making the lobster slightly less unsatisfying raised the price of the $50 Indian seafood extravaganza to $61.
While I waited for my palak, I regarded the steamed peas and carrots. How does a restaurant that makes such spectacular Indian vegetable dishes decide to serve steamed peas and carrots with their most expensive entree? Obviously, the desire to please a Western audience has gotten out of hand in this case. In picking European-style mixed steamed vegetables as a side for tandoori lobster, Ashiana's kitchen seems to have lost confidence in the thing they are supposed to do best: Indian cuisine.
Under Kiran Verma, Ashiana earned a reputation as one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the city. But last September, Verma sold her interest to a former employee named Latika Barhija. I found Barhija in her office the night I ordered the lobster and I asked her what kind of lobster it was. "I don't really know," she replied. "I don't eat lobster."
After consulting her invoices, she told me it was a Bahamian rock lobster. Her suppliers send her different kinds from time to time, she said cheerfully. But clearly, she had no clue how one kind differed from another. She seemed like a nice woman, but not the person I want picking my lobster.
On my last visit, I had intended to order a la carte, but I was discouraged by the prices. Chicken tikka masala, the Indian dish invented in Great Britain, goes for $19. Lamb chop masala sells for $24. Vegetables range from $8.95 to $10.95.