Hot Stuff

Houston's Indian restaurants may not be as numerous as, say, our corner taquerias or our upscale Italian cafes, but there are plenty of them, and they're generally of high quality. So I wasn't particularly surprised recently when I found that Haveli, which has been in business across the street from the now-abandoned site of the original Churrascos for about 15 months, to be a solid, consistently satisfying member of the subcontinental genre.

Not surprised, maybe, but still pleased, in part because Haveli is a reminder of that ethnic mix-and-match that is so peculiarly Houstonian. Instead of the beaded partitions often found in Asian restaurants, Haveli has gone with glazed ceramic tile borders, maroon wainscoting and a pierced copper trim, complete with a Lone Star pattern, over the centrally placed bar: Indian-style Tex-Mex, if you will. Even more, I liked the inverted terra-cotta pots that hang in a row at eye-level just outside the plate glass windows and serve as lamp shades. I'm told that Haveli's owners are in the process of scaling the place up another notch or two with china imported straight from the home country and silver-plated serving pieces.

Still, as far as I'm concerned, Haveli could serve up its chutneys and pappadums on chipped Formica tables under glaring fluorescent light fixtures. I'd still be a customer, if only for the heat.

I knew I was in for a sinus-clearing dining experience when, on my first visit to Haveli, I sampled the two side dishes set on our table by the same waiter I've had every visit since: a bow-tied Mississippian who talks faster than any New Yorker I've ever met. The mango chutney, a pretty sherbet color, was sweet, fruity ... and amazingly hot. The spiced onions, fat white rings encrusted with a grainy, auburn pepper mixture, were barbecuey, salty ... and hot. These came after my lips had already been singed by the lighter than air -- and, yes, hot -- pappadums, not to mention the tamarind chutney, clear and thin and blood red, and the green herb chutney, chunky and tart. As spicy as these starters of pappadum and chutney were, they turned out to be among the mildest offerings I sampled.

It's not that I'm a neophyte when it comes to high-temperature dining; at Haveli, even my Indian friends ordered their dinners with the heat level turned down a few degrees to the "mild" setting. Another friend -- a woman hailing from a family whose members have jalapeno eating contests -- could not stop fanning her hand in front of her face during lunch. Even when I looked for relief by reaching for a spoonful of raita, what I got was a cool yogurt mixture sneakily laced with a pepper edge. I found that the best extinguisher for the mouth fires that continually flare up at Haveli to be the thin, sour, buttermilk-like drink known as salt lassi. Served in a tall tumbler with beads of sweat on the outside of the glass, it's a palliative that prepares you well for another dive into the inferno.

Spicing can be used to cover up mistakes, and with each dish I tried I half-expected to encounter flawed cooking that the kitchen had attempted to conceal by way of an endorphin-elevating pepper buzz. But I never uncovered any such sleight of hand. The cook just seems to like it hot. The most serious culinary problem I found was an occasional heavy hand with the salt shaker -- not uncommon in Indian restaurants -- and a less-than-exciting sameness on the weekday buffet. About half of the dozen or so steam-table dishes (which are served without the required sneeze-guard, incidentally; here's hoping Haveli gets its act together before a visit from Marvin Zindler) have as their base the same orange-brown curry gravy.

Still, Haveli's curries, even the ones subjected to the rigors of the steam table, don't fall prey to the common Indian restaurant plague of over-oiliness. In the Bombay aloo, or potato curry, the pleasingly arid, golf ball-sized potatoes sit coated in a layer of their rich sauce. The curried chicken pieces, even though they're glazed a translucent, vaguely fluorescent yellow and are fall-off-the-bone tender, aren't at all greasy. The chicken in white sauce is a mildly exotic, nutmegy tasting chicken a la king that provides a welcome relief from the aggressive seasonings of the rest of the buffet; again, no trickles of oil seep from this smooth, creamy affair. Speaking of smooth and creamy, Haveli serves forth one of the best sag paneers around: the creamed spinach is nutty and vegetal and the cheese is dry, compact and grainy, though not always as abundant as one might like; I did find myself poking around for more cheese chunks. Another spinach dish that earns equally high marks is the kashmiri sag, or spinach with lotus root. The little lotus root wheels add a hint of tartness and a gentle crunch, similar in texture to an artichoke heart, to the oozy spinach.

Elsewhere on the buffet, the lentil dal was tasty, but cooked past the point where the lentils could retain much of their integrity; they were more the consistency of cooked oatmeal. Finding a chafing dish full of curried goat was a pleasant surprise, and the little riblets of cinnamon-tinged meat, awash in a sea of umber gravy, were exceptionally yielding. The tandoori chicken, surprisingly tender and smokily flavorful, flirted with dryness but emerged unsullied.

At night, the row of terra -cotta jug-lamps shield your eyes from the parking lot glare, lavish aromas emerge from the kitchen and the scent from the dishes set on your table seems to furl itself around you. At once lush, friendly and homey, the fragrances of Indian cuisine betray the intense flavors that make it so appealing. The lamb moglai, with its unctuous white specks of egg and its heady basil leaves, lives up to the richness promised by its aroma, the flavor of the meat not being drowned by the gravy. The only flaw in this dish was the occasional tough piece of lamb. Another lamb recipe, the kheema mutter, looks like an Italian meat sauce: thick with ground lamb, flame-colored with tomatoes and dotted with the green of peas and chunks of bell pepper, this salty, oily dish is lovely when eaten by the spoonful over a mound of long-grain, pearly basmati rice. A dish of pale -- almost delicate -- orange hue is the shrimp kashmiri kurma: tomato, almonds and cilantro swim with springy shrimp in a thin but creamy broth.

If you're afraid of being swept away on a tide of gravy, you can try the mushroom bhaji ("bhaji" indicates a sauceless method of cooking), which pleased with its hefty slices of domestic button mushrooms, its slivers of red peppers and its peas. A note of cinnamon underlay the whole. I've promised myself to try the okra bhaji on my next visit.

While the salt lassi is the best accompaniment to the start of a Haveli meal, the perfect heat antidote with which to end is a sugar-rimmed glass of mango lassi. Think grown-up, tart milk shake. Drink one, and your heat-riddled mouth will thank you. And you'll be perfectly prepped for a return trip.

Haveli, 9817 Bissonnet, 776-0702.

Haveli: weekday lunch buffet, $5.95; sag paneer, $6.95; lamb moglai $10.95; mango lassi, $2.25.


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