On its answering machine, Ashiana brags that it's the best Indian restaurant in Houston. That's an audacious claim -- this city is blessedly full of good Indian food -- but Ashiana doesn't make it lightly.
There are plenty of other signs that this restaurant takes itself seriously: subdued lighting, quiet background music, no pictures of the Taj. When the server brings your menu, he also delivers a plate of warm, rolled pappadams -- a crispy flat bread -- with both tamarind and cilantro sauces for dipping; they're perfect to munch while reading the menu's boasts about the chef who spent 18 years working at the New Delhi Sheraton Hotel.
The appetizers are delicious but are perhaps the least interesting and unusual of Ashiana's offerings. The vegetable pakoras ($4) -- assorted vegetables seasoned in gram flour and deep-fried -- were crunchy, tasty and absolutely greaseless, perfect for dipping into any of the sauces provided. The keema samosas ($4) were almost as good: two large, flaky pastries filled with a beautifully spiced minced lamb mixture.
But those appetizers face tough competition on Ashiana's menu, and you'd be well advised to skip them and head straight to the soup and salads. Mughali sherba ($5) translates as a homemade chicken soup with lentils, rice and chicken, spiked with a garam masala spice mixture and garnished with onion crisps and cilantro. If my sweet Jewish mother had spent her formative years in New Delhi, this is what she would have served me when I was sick. Or when I was well.
You shouldn't be allowed to visit Ashiana without sampling the tandoori salat ($7). Not a salad in the usual sense, the dish consists of cubes of panir (a mild, white homemade cheese) mixed with onion, bell pepper, tomato and pineapple, then seasoned with a masala spice mixture and grilled in a tandoor oven. The tang of the pineapple plays unforgettably against the sweetness of the roasted vegetables and the richness of the cheese.
The entrees also offer a surfeit of riches. At our server's strong recommendation (thank you!) we ordered sikandari raan ($18 for two people as a main entree) -- a leg of New Zealand lamb cooked over a slow fire, allowing a warm, complicated mixture of spices to permeate the meat. A quick finishing trip to the tandoor gives the lamb a succulent crust. It arrives on a sizzling platter with thin slices of charred onion, sending up the most amazing aroma. The dish needs only a squeeze of lemon to achieve perfection.
The other lamb dish we tried, ashar gosht ($14), would in any other competition have been the clear winner. It's "in the style of Hydrabadi," which the menu explains as "cooked in yogurt and tickling spices." Tickling spices, indeed: The hot mixture does tickle your palate -- in fact, it practically explodes there. And still, the taste of the rich, moist lamb manages to shine through.
The murgh makhani (butter chicken) shows that gilding a lily isn't a bad thing. Boneless chicken breasts are blasted in the tandoor, then simmered in a rich, gentle sauce of cream, tomato and butter.
The shahi panir ($8) brought more of those magical cheese cubes, this time simmered in a mild, creamy tomato sauce. I once tasted a sauce like this on a rainy evening in New Delhi. One bite brought it all back -- a Proustian moment far more satisfying than a vacation snapshot.
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I didn't expect much from the dal Ashiana ($7). In most Indian restaurants, dal is an afterthought, a thin soup of lentils poured over rice. But this dal, from the chef's family recipe, is different. Black lentils are cooked on a slow fire with garlic, ginger, tomatoes and onions, garnished with spices, then finished with light cream and butter. In the Bible, Esau sold his birthright for a pot of lentils. If the lentils that Jacob cooked were only half as good as these, Esau made a good deal.
I did have high hopes for the breads, though -- I'm a big fan of Indian breads -- and Ashiana's lived up to my expectations. Soft, puffy buttered nan is a welcome accompaniment to all the tandoori items. And the onion kulcha -- a fresh, warm whole wheat bread stuffed with onions and cilantro -- stands on its own just fine.
To my taste, desserts in most Indian restaurants are too sweet, but here again Ashiana strikes the right balance. Kulfi ($4), a mixture of thickened fresh milk and whipped cream, is served almost frozen, like ice cream, and garnished with pistachio, saffron, nuts and mango. And ras malai ($4), spongy cheesecake served in cream and garnished with pistachio and saffron, makes little squeaky noises against your teeth, like someone polishing a window. Consider it a kind of after-dinner entertainment.
Ashiana, 12610 Briar Forest, (281)679-5555.