There were three chicken, one goat and five vegetable entrées offered at the lunch buffet at Gourmet India the day I stopped by. The lunch shift was the only time I ever saw a decent crowd at this elegant Punjabi restaurant located on Westheimer at Eldridge Parkway.
It's hard to imagine a field of tall grass and spindly trees growing alongside a thoroughfare as densely developed as Westheimer. But out here, halfway to Fulshear, Westheimer is a country road. You could graze goats in the vacant lot across the street from the forlorn shopping center in which Gourmet India resides. I half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling through the enormous, empty parking lot when I pulled in.
But once you open the front door of the restaurant, you forget the desolation outside. With its ruby-red carpeting, white-linen tablecloths and dark wood dining chairs, Gourmet India looks unexpectedly posh. The servers wear formal clothing, and many of the lunch buffet customers are dressed in suits and ties.
Gourmet India 13155 Westheimer, 281-493-5435.
Kings Chicken 11300 Beechnut St., 281-498-2900.
Gourmet India Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Gourmet's dinner for two: $45
Lunch buffet: $15
Saag Paneer: $9
Mango lassi: $3Kings Chicken Hours: 8:30a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Chicken korma: $4.99
Goat korma: $6.99
Paratha and eggs: $5.99
Two-piece fried chicken: $2.49
The buffet was beautifully presented, beginning with a stretch of the fried appetizers called pakora, with bowls of tamarind and mint chutney, and cucumber and yogurt raita, sliced onions, pickles and a mixed green salad. Papadams and fresh nan bread were offered in abundance.
The most interesting of the vegetable entrées was dum aloo kashmiri, which was made by hollowing out cavities in golf ball-size potatoes and filling them with a mixture of nuts and raisins. The stuffed potatoes are then cooked in a mild red curry gravy thickened with lentil flour.
All the chicken dishes featured exceptionally tender hunks of white-meat chicken. The curried chicken and chicken tikka masala were juicy, and even the chicken tandoori, a dish that always comes out dry, was pleasantly moist. The goat korma was excellent, except for the fact that I got a bone in every bite. I know it's traditional to cook goat curries this way, but the bone pile on my bread plate was ghoulishly large.
The mushroom masala was marred by squishy little chunks of green beans that tasted like they were previously frozen. I didn't even try the nasty-looking mixed-vegetable masala, which looked like previously frozen vegetables in curry sauce. But some of the vegetables were excellent, including the spicy daal of yellow lentils and the buttery saag paneer, which was among the best versions of the creamed mustard greens I've tasted in Houston.
On a dinner visit, we started with an appetizer sampler that included some crunchy vegetable pakora and chewy onion bhaji. The Punjabi samosa, a conical crust filled with vegetables, was slightly gummy.
For an entrée, I sampled the wonderful roganjosh, a rich lamb curry that was loaded with chiles and aromatic spices. I also sampled a spectacular chicken saag, tender chunks of white-meat chicken served in the creamy puree of mustard greens. They were two of the best Indian dishes I have eaten lately. And neither was available on the lunch buffet.
The nan bread came to the table hot out of the oven, but when it comes to Indian-style flatbreads, Gourmet India has some stiff competition in this town.
My recent Indian food binge was triggered by the spectacular nan bread I ate at a weird little joint called Kings Chicken on Beechnut. Along with the hot blistered nan bread at Kings Chicken, I had sampled some halal fried chicken and a bowl of chicken korma that cost me five bucks — less than half the price of the chicken korma on the menu at Gourmet India. There wasn't that much difference in quality, if you ignore the plastic forks, Styrofoam plates and shabby decor at the chicken shack.
It made me wonder: Does every mainstream ethnic restaurant on Westheimer have a cheaper equivalent on Beechnut? Look at the upscale Le Viet, http://www.houstonpress.com/2007-06-07/dining/le-viet-restaurant-bar/, and the affordable Que Huong, http://www.houstonpress.com/2008-01-10/dining/que-huong/, owned by two generations of the same Vietnamese family. Or compare Hugo's high-dollar version of authentic Mexican food to the fast casual Mexico City fare at Doña Tere, http://restaurants.houstonpress.com/2007-10-11/dining/do-a-terrific.
Granted, you have to be something of a food explorer to appreciate a few of these places. My mother, who is obsessed with sanitary standards, wouldn't be comfortable at Kings Chicken. And truth be told, it's quite a feat just to order any food there, since few of the Pakistani, Afghani, Central American or African members of the restaurant staff speak much English.
But you can always point to the menu, which hangs on the wall behind the front counter. On my first visit, I marveled at a breakfast section that included paratha bread and eggs along with the traditional Pakistani breakfast curry called choley. I was pounding on the door of Kings Chicken a few mornings later trying to get them to open the door precisely at their eight-thirty opening time.
I doubted there would be coffee, but I was pleased to find an urn of unsweetened strong chai out on a side counter, and I helped myself. The eggs, which were scrambled with jalapeños, were fantastic. The paratha bread reminded me of a stiff flour tortilla, and the choley, a stew of curried garbanzo beans, was just like a big pile of spicy refried beans. Next time I'll go for the nan or the puri breads instead of the paratha.
On my breakfast visit, I noticed that the bread was baked on an "impinger," one of those fast, conveyer belt ovens originally developed for use in delivery pizza joints. On an impinger-style oven, a large pizza bakes in an average of around eight minutes. Suddenly, the sign advertising gourmet halal pizzas made more sense.
A couple of evenings later, I was at Kings Chicken ordering a half chapli kebab and half barbecue chicken tikka pizza. When they messed up and gave me all chapli kebab, the owner apologized for a translation error somewhere along the line. He said he was designing forms to deal with the United Nations assortment of languages. They made another pie with the correct toppings and sent me home with two halal pizzas.
The nan bread was so good, I figured the pizza would be outrageous. But actually, it was just average. The chapli kebab was made with spicy ground chicken instead of the usual spicy ground beef, and the barbecue sauce was too sweet. The Nigerian cook also went a little too heavy on the halal mozzarella.
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While I often pay lip service to the notion that an Indian restaurant should be judged by the superior fare served at dinner and not by the corner-cutting cuisine that appears on its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, I am just as baffled by the logic of Indian food prices as everybody else.
Entrées containing meat go for $11 and $12 on Gourmet India's menu. That would seem reasonable if they came with some sides, but they don't. Everything is served à la carte. And side orders like saag paneer and daal are $9 a pop. The bread costs $2 and $3, and they even charge $3 for steamed rice. Raita? $3. Pickles? $2. Did I mention drinks and appetizers?
To avoid getting skewered at Gourmet India, opt for the $45 Gourmet's Dinner for Two. It includes vegetable pakora appetizers and papadams, juicy tandoori chicken, tandoori prawns, fingers of barbecued ground chicken tikka, spicy ground lamb sheek kebab, your choice of mild chicken tikka masala or spicy lamb roganjosh (get the roganjosh), saag paneer, daal, rice pulao, nan, chutney and Indian lime pickles. I picked up this spread to go one night last week. And when unexpected guests dropped by, I ended up feeding four with it pretty easily.
Of course, if I had spent the same $45 at Kings Chicken, I probably could have fed ten. It's nice to have the choice. Because sometimes I'm in the mood for the more mainstream ethnic food on Westheimer, and sometimes I'm in the mood for the immigrant-oriented ethnic food on Beechnut. And sometimes I let my wallet do the deciding.