Cult restaurateur

"Mickey's back!" The late-winter rumors sent Indian-food buffs on hopeful cruises past Kirby and Richmond, where the sign on an empty strip-center shell read "Khyber North Indian Grill." "Open Soon," promised a banner. Not a moment too soon for fans of Mickey Kapoor, the pun-happy Peter Sellers look-alike who has presided over the golden ages of Houston's best Indian restaurants: the Taj Mahal, India's, and the late, lamented Bombay Grill.

When last heard from, Kapoor had thrown up his hands and sold the Bombay (now the Akbar), whose Hillcroft address put him at the mercy of southwest Houston's demanding and cost-conscious Indian community. "The bottom line just wasn't there," admits Kapoor, the kind of old-school restaurateur given to fretting over ingredients and devising secret formulas for his own garam masala, a seasoning mix so pugnaciously aromatic that to whiff it is to swoon. Now he's resurfaced inside the Loop (a more natural forum for his ambitious ideas), bearing a yuppie-friendly grill concept that breaks the local Indian-restaurant mold.

About time. Kapoor half-jokingly calls his brainchild "Nouvelle Indian," and in a town full of numbingly similar subcontinental menus, his modern sensibility is a breath of fresh air. He's banished much of the traditional cuisine's guilt-inducing fat. He's installed big, vented grills that spare his ingeniously marinated meats and shrimp from the overcooking to which cranky clay tandoor ovens are prone. He's ventured out on a limb with such novelties as minced-chicken-and-cashew kebabs, Indian-style lamb chops and a very '90s vegetable plate. He's even installed a simple patio and an espresso machine. Did you ever think you'd see the words "good cappuccino" and "Indian restaurant" in the same story? Or the words "eat lightly" and "Indian food," for that matter? You're about to.

Khyber is still wet behind the ears, but already it qualifies as a significant addition to the Houston dining scene. Occasional wobbles shrink in the context of its lilting marinades, its herbal wizardry, its painstakingly tactful grilling. And, glory be, it's easy on the eyes: all warm, dark woods and brick and terra cotta. Industrial lamps shed low-key light. Copper and brass vessels dangle above the long, open grill, with its dramatic black hoods and bright tile backsplash. Stacked casually by the door stand cardboard boxes of beer and wine, telegraphing their easygoing grill message.

Right away, the gratis pappadums serve notice that the Khyber makes its own rules. Even these brittle, lentil-flour wafers are done on the grill here, pebbled and nicely singed, folded into half-moons, far superior to your garden-variety fried versions. Studded with exclamatory cumin seeds, they are fine excuses to ingest shameless quantities of the Khyber's mint and tamarind chutneys. Some days, I'm certain that the pale-green mint chutney, revved with jalapenos and calmed with yogurt, murmuring faintly of cilantro, is the better one. Other days, I'd swear it was the tart, fruity tamarind with its undercurrents of browned cumin and ginger. The experiment could take years.

So could my internal debate over the restaurant's classy first-course grills. I had never met an Indian-restaurant shrimp I liked until the Khyber's jhinga showed up on my plate: jumbo shellfish grilled not a second too long, subtly flavored with mint and garlic. But then -- fajitas, eat your hearts out! -- the rosy lamb strips called manty grabbed my attention with their malt-vinegar snap.

Next I switched my allegiance to chooza, the tenderest charcoaly chicken strips that sing with fresh mint and green chiles. Until I tried the bhaji -- thin eggplant disks bathed in tangy mustard oil and striped on the grill along with squares of the fresh-pressed Indian cheese called paneer. White and crumbly and faintly tart, paneer takes on an interesting new character in grilled form; the trick is not to grill it into a dryish, rubbery state. When Khyber gets it right (which at present seems to be about 66 2/3 percent of the time), this is splendid stuff to tuck into one of the wheels of Indian flatbread you'd be well advised to order along with it. Add a few of those grilled onions. Maybe a bit of green chutney. Bliss.

Actually, my ideal meal here might be a couple of appetizers plus some bread, followed by a good strong cup of cappuccino -- the kind of repast that can send you out the door feeling exhilarated and blessedly unstuffed. Which is not, as any aficionado can tell you, the state in which one usually exits an Indian restaurant.

About those flatbreads: thanks to Kapoor's high-tech tandoor, which was custom-designed for him by an engineer friend, they boast an uncommon precision and finesse. The oven's internal thermostat and gas-fired lava rocks make it far more predictable than the traditional, charcoal-fired clay ovens, with their heat surges and smoke belches. So the white-flour naan -- unadorned, or stuffed with paneer or cilantro-spiked onions -- puffs high and light, like some stretchy celestial pancake, while its underside sears brown and crisp on the hot clay.

It's hard to go wrong with the Khyber's grilled entrees. The only one that left me unpersuaded was a dry, strong-tasting slab of swordfish marinated in mustard oil and garlic. Good idea, bad execution. But chicken breasts Afghani had unusual savoir faire: flash-grilled to leave their centers marginally pink, tender from their garlic-and-ginger yogurt marinade, they jumped with hints of fenugreek and white cumin. Skinless, they bore not a trace of fat (the proof lay in the next day's refrigerated leftovers, which sported a clear jellied consomme, not blobs of congealed grease).

The Khyber's barah kebab is worlds away from the muttony, overdone stuff that passes for lamb in too many Indian restaurants. Humming with malt vinegar and beautifully pink inside, it's a knockout. It's a little unfair to order the reshmi kebab at the same time; so nuanced are these slender cylinders of minced chicken, cashews and fresh-pressed cheese that the exuberant lamb can overshadow their charm.

Once upon a time, I ate some tandoori lamb chops at Washington, D.C.'s exemplary Bombay Club. Ever since, I've been longing for a reasonable Houston facsimile. Now, here it is: rosy-rare chops with a breezy yogurt tang and a minty topspin. Like all the grilled entrees, they come with a triad of grilled carrots, green peppers and onions. There's naan on the plate, too, and fragrant rice laced with almonds and cumin, and an elemental salad of lemony cucumber and tomato seasoned with pungent black salt. That adds up to a complete meal; unlike most Indian places, the Khyber is geared as much to individual diners as to ravening hordes of inveterate sharers.

The vegetable dishes here, for example, come in share-able bowls or, a highly civilized touch, in individual side orders. The grilled potatoes in yogurt and "royal cumin" -- or "uppity cumin," as Kapoor calls this mellower white version of the seed -- have plenty of tartness and dash. Ladled over rice, the garlicky, tomatoey daal of black lentils and red beans could hold its own in New Orleans. And saag paneer, the spinach dish cradling soft chunks of briefly grilled white cheese, is a relatively austere version that doesn't suffer from its lack of cream and oil. Why should it, with jalapenos and yogurt to give it a kick? This is the only saag paneer I've ever encountered that didn't fill me with an urge to rush out and confess my sins.

There are desserts. They are, like most Indian desserts, an acquired taste. The phirni is a sort of gentle rice gruel fleshed out with ground nuts and coconut; halwa, a sweet minced-carrot pudding, looks for all the world like baby food. I'll have another cappuccino, please.

And I'll give thanks that Mickey is back in business. I'm not the only one. "What's the difference between Northern India and Southern India?" a diner asked him the other day. "About 2,000 miles," he deadpanned from behind his bow tie and spectacles. Nearby, a couple of women pricked up their ears. "I'd know that smart-ass voice anywhere!" expostulated one. "What a blast from my past!"

Precisely. Kapoor still has some kinks to smooth out -- over-enthusiastic use of Pine-sol is one of them -- but his new place seems a good fit. Neighbors like Yildizlar, Pizzeria Uno, Ninfa's and the burgeoning World-o'-Pappas put him in a lively, well-trafficked zone. Already, high above the al fresco terrace with its oh-so-Houstonian vista of Mahan Volkswagen, Mickey has signed an autograph of sorts in those interchangeable letters local merchants dote on. "Used Karma Dealer," reads the sign. It's funny, and apt, and a little poignant, too. My karma feels better every time I see it.

Khyber North Indian Grill, 25l0 Richmond, 942-9424.


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