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he chicken "phal" at Nirvana Indian Restaurant on Memorial came with big tender chunks of boneless white-meat chicken in an orange sauce made with madras curry powder, dried chiles and mustard seed. We all agreed it was the best dish on the table, despite the fact that it was extremely spicy.
14543 Memorial Drive
Houston, TX 77079
Chicken "phal": $17
Prawns jalfrezi: $17
Keema naan: $5
Lunch buffet: $12
Monday dinner buffet: $16
Nirvana, which is located on Memorial between Kirkwood and Dairy-Ashford, is pleasant, though uninspired. It looks like a stereotype of an upscale Indian restaurant, with dark chairs and white tablecloths in a square, featureless dining room. There is a buffet at lunchtime and on Monday nights. The dinner menu takes some deciphering.
I invited my Welsh friends, Elton and Emma, to dinner because I had heard that Nirvana caters to British expats. British-Indian food is a cuisine unto itself. British-Indian cookbook author Manju Malhi coined the term "Brit-Indi" to describe the London style, which combines a relaxed version of Indian cooking with easily obtainable British ingredients.
The fusion dish called chicken tikka masala, which is tandoori chicken in a "gravy" of cream of tomato soup and Indian spices, has been called the national dish of England. "The popular curry dish called balti was invented in Birmingham," Elton chuckled.
Chicken phal is another British-Indian creation. "Phal" is supposedly one step hotter than "vindaloo," Elton said.
"That's funny, I always thought the British version of Indian food was milder than the original," I said.
"Not always," said Elton. Conceding that there are plenty of British-born Indian dishes like butter chicken and chicken tikka masala that are exceedingly mild, he said that macho contests to see who can eat the hottest dish at the Indian restaurant are also part of the "lad's night out" tradition in Great Britain. "Phal" was invented to appeal to daredevils. Nirvana's version was tasty, but not really hot enough to deserve the name, he said dismissively.
"I thought the prawns jalfrezi were quite good," said Emma. The dish featured huge Gulf shrimp, cleaned and deveined, in a savory stew of onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and fenugreek. I thought they were spectacular. Emma loved the sauce, but she confessed she was having a tough time getting used to the strong flavor of Gulf shrimp.
I told her to look for the milder white shrimp instead of the stronger brown shrimp at the seafood counter. But I also pointed out that it was a mistake to call any kind of Gulf shrimp "prawns." In Europe and other parts of the world, that name is often used for freshwater shellfish, which are always milder in flavor than marine shellfish.
Emma also ordered a wild variety of roti bread called keema naan that was stuffed with a very spicy ground lamb mixture. I loved the stuff, and I had never heard of it before. I am going to have to widen my naan range.
We were all confused by the dish called dhansak. Elton figured the stuff Nirvana served must be authentic, because it didn't look like the British version. But according to my research, it didn't look like the Bombay version either. In the Bombay Parsi community, dhansak is a spice-studded pumpkin-and-lentil vegetarian stew.
The dish we were served was a hodgepodge of chopped lamb and vegetables, including onions, green peppers, tomatoes, lentils, summer squash, green beans and baby lima beans. It had no dominant flavor and a weird texture. It wasn't stewed long enough for the vegetables to melt, nor was it stir-fried fast enough for them to stay crisp. It was somewhere in the unpleasant middle, like a chopped salad that had been microwaved.
I thought the food was pretty good, but Emma and Elton said they wouldn't be coming back. "When we ate at Yatra, you could really taste the anise seed and the fenugreek in the curry," Elton said [see "Curry Burritos," April 19]. "This food is okay, but it's not great. It doesn't have a rich flavor. It's on the second level with Indian restaurants like Bombay Brasserie."
I identify with the British attitude toward Indian food because it reminds me of the Texas take on Mexican food. They act like they own curry, and we talk like we invented tacos. Or, to put it more diplomatically, the British tend to be fond of British-Indian fusion dishes, but they are also very knowledgeable about the native cuisines of the subcontinent, just like Texans know and love both Tex-Mex and interior Mexican.
The first time I visited Nirvana was in a past life. (Just kidding.) Actually, it was on a Monday night when the buffet was set up. There were a half-dozen entrées and at least as many vegetable dishes available in the chafing dishes. I tried almost all of them.
I have a love/hate relationship with the buffets at Indian restaurants. They are great for restaurant reviews because I can sample a lot of dishes in one visit. But the downside is that the dishes are seldom the same as those ordered from the dinner menu. And I always eat too much.
I started with pappadams and chutney the Indian chips and salsa and a Kingfisher beer. Then I sampled the crunchy battered chicken fingers called pakora and the bhaji. The onion bhaji in American Indian restaurants tastes like a cross between onion rings and Outback's blooming onion, Elton had told me. As I dipped the fried onions in tamarind chutney, I wondered why he thought that was a bad thing.
I spooned a big pile of rice in the middle of my second plate and topped it with small portions of steam-table specialties. The creamy bhuna chicken, seasoned with a mild masala and a faint touch of tomato sauce, was a comfort-food experience that reminded me of chicken à la king. The buttery saag paneer was standard-issue. The yellow lentils seemed a little undercooked. The chickpeas were bland. I skipped the chicken tikka masala.
I went back a third time to try the lamb and goat curry one of my tablemates was raving about. The curry sauce was spectacular, but the "meat" was mostly an assortment of tiny rib bones. In order to eat it, you had to pick up a section of ribs and gnaw the little bits of meat between each of the bones. It was tasty but way more trouble than it was worth.
Things haven't been the same out on Memorial since Indika moved to Montrose. Nirvana suffers by comparison, but then again, so do most of the Indian restaurants in the country. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Nirvana for some favorite fusion dishes like chicken phal. Just don't expect authentic Brit-Indi food.
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