Maybe I was staring too intently at the hot foie gras and sweet fig chutney appetizer my tablemate ordered at Indika. He was dying to dig in, but instead he sat back and invited me to go ahead and have a bite. Politeness would have dictated that I insist he try some first. But, manners be damned, I reached across the table and cut off a big hunk with my fork.
The chutney supplied little more than a sweet glaze on my palate as the hot, unctuous liver melted in my mouth. And the dry squares of semolina bread that came on the side were more or less superfluous. But the foie gras was heavenly.
My other tablemate was eating something called "duck almond kofta curry, onion pakora salad," a surprising bowl of cool greens and onion fritter croutons with big duck meatballs in it.
I stabbed one of the meatballs and cut it up on the side of my plate. The duck meat wasn't ground -- the sphere was made by binding nice size chunks of duck meat together. The duck and the exotic flavor of almond curry reminded me of my favorite dish at the old Indika location out on Memorial -- tandoori duck in almond curry.
Having helped myself to major forkfuls of each of my tablemates' appetizers, I offered them each a taste of mine. But they weren't very interested. When you order goat brain masala for a starter, you stand a good chance of eating it all by yourself.
Brains and eggs was once a very popular Southern breakfast. That dish called for pig brains instead of goat brains and grits instead of roti bread. The most unappetizing thing about brains (beyond the psychological implications) is the pasty color. If you can get over the concept of eating gray matter and the way it looks, you will probably find the slick and creamy texture and mild flavor delightful.
The first step in making Indian brain masala is to boil the brains in water with turmeric, which gives the brain a pleasant yellow color. At Indika the brain is then cooked with a pungent masala (spice mix) and combined with bits of potatoes in a yogurt sauce. The sumptuously smooth and spicy brain stew is then served over flatbread slices. It's an experience not to be missed.
I was wowed by the revamped menu at Indika's stylish new location and the intriguing cocktail list. I sampled a deep red pomegranate, ginger and vodka drink called an Anarkali. It had an intense tartness that went beautifully with the spicy appetizers. The "Madras mojito," with mint, lime and guava puree, sounded alluring too.
The entrées were a bit of a surprise: I counted one goat, one chicken, one quail, two lamb, three vegetarian and four fish dishes. There was a time when seafood hardly even appeared on the menus of Indian restaurants. According to Indian chef Neela Paniz's cookbook, The Bombay Cafe, fish was uncommon in India because of the lack of refrigeration.
A new generation of innovative Indian chefs in the United States have set out to refute the older generation's dated views. When I called Anita Jaisinghani, the owner of Indika, after she opened its original location on Memorial Drive five years ago, I read her Paniz's observations on the phone. But she assured me that Indians had plenty of refrigerators these days, and that fish was hardly a novelty in middle-class Indian homes.
While that may be true, the halibut I sampled at Indika in September 2001 didn't impress me much. And during our conversation, Jaisinghani admitted that despite repeated attempts, she still hadn't come up with a seafood biryani recipe that she liked. Compared to the bold, spicy flavors in the rest of her food, the fish dishes were a letdown. Five years later, the chef is still cooking fish. And since Indika's new menu features more seafood than anything else, I figured it was time to try it again.
I ordered shrimp vindaloo, a pile of juicy sautéed shrimp in a deep brown sauce that tasted like an extra spicy Indian gumbo with masala instead of filé powder. Both of my tablemates got even with me for ordering goat brains by chowing down on several of my shrimp. The orange-flavored rice pilaf and braised fennel served on the side were both pretty ordinary. But the spicy shrimp were so sensational, I almost sent the waiter back for another plate.
One of my tablemates got a fish dish with the elaborate title of "Idaho trout stuffed with nuts and herbs, saffron coconut curry, sweet potato and lentil puree." When I reached over to try a bite, I accidentally got a forkful of the puree, and I was shocked by how good the yams and the refried lentils tasted together. The trout wasn't bad either.
The fish filet had been cut in half and the two pieces used as the top and the bottom of a sandwich with the herbed nuts, which tasted like pecans, in the middle. With the richness of the coconut milk and the aromas of the curry, the chef took Idaho trout somewhere it had never been before.
My other dining companion got "grilled arctic char, Bengali mustard curry, lentil pilaf." The lusciously fatty Canadian fish, which is a cousin to freshwater trout and salmon, was beautifully grilled with flecks of black on the edges. (Yes, it was "charred char." Sorry, I can't help myself.) I wish the Bengali mustard curry was as sensational as it sounded, but it needed some spicier mustard. With a bolder mustard sauce and a pile of frites instead of the boring lentil pilaf, this could be the fish frites of my dreams.
And if you're thinking that frites aren't Indian, well, neither are Arctic char or Idaho trout. That never stopped Anita Jaisinghani before.
Anita Jaisinghani earned a PhD. in microbiology in her native India and then spent ten years working in Canada before she moved to Houston and changed careers. She worked as the pastry chef at Café Annie for nearly two years before opening the original Indika on Memorial. That restaurant was lauded by the New York Times, Gourmet magazine and a host of other publications for its startlingly fresh take on Indian cuisine.
Along with perfecting Indian seafood dishes, Jaisinghani has also made it a goal to teach Westerners about chaat -- which is one of the most popular snacks in urban India. Chaat is a sort of savory snack food sundae generally made with crispy cereal snacks, yogurt and savory condiments.
On a previous visit at lunchtime, I tried one of Jaisinghani's chaat creations, a mélange of corn samosas, warm potatoes and black garbanzos with yogurt and crispy rice. It was a pleasant combination of cool and warm starches, but mainly it tasted strange. As hard as I try, I can't get beyond my "Rice Krispies are for breakfast" mentality.
It's much easier for us yokels to embrace a familiar Western form like the juicy, sweet and cheesy "grilled chicken naan sandwich with spinach, goat cheese and mango chutney," which is also on the lunch menu. The sandwich was huge, and my lunchmate was a dainty eater. So I abandoned my chaat and finished the other half of her sandwich.
The sandwich is indicative of the broader appeal of Indika's new menu. In fact, the whole attitude of the restaurant has become more welcoming. The original location, a little white cottage off Memorial, was certainly charming, but it felt cramped when it was fully occupied. And it didn't seem so cute when you couldn't get a reservation.
The striking new built-from-scratch structure on Westheimer is an architectural wonder. The soaring ceilings give the building a monumental feeling, but the dining room seems quite intimate, thanks to an interior design that divides the tables between a lower level and a gallery-like second tier.
The walls are painted with saffron, peach and pink grapefruit colors. Billowing hanging fabrics in shades of rose break up the angles, and bright blue vases and fabrics provide accents. A huge bar and a cozy outdoor patio add a range of seating options.
At the new location, Indika has found a suitable showcase for its world-class Indian food. And it has added the upscale cocktails and approachable lunch items that it needed to attract a wider audience. Combine the hip new menu with a Montrose-area address, and you have the makings of greatness.
But as brilliant as she is, Anita Jaisinghani owes part of the credit for her success to the palates of Houstonians. Floyd Cardoz at Tabla in New York will never be able to make his food as spicy as it should be, because New Yorkers are wimps when it comes to chiles. And I imagine innovative Indian restaurants in Tennessee and California face the same restraints.
What makes Jaisinghani's food great is that it's not only among the most creative takes on Indian cuisine in the country, it's also muy picante when it's supposed to be. Thanks to the "bring it on" palates of jalapeño-happy Houstonians, Indika's fabulous, fiery Indian food has found the audience it deserves.
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