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Postmodern Punjabi

Anita Jaisinghani: The hostess, owner, chef and culinary Scheherazade at Restaurant Indika.
Deron Neblett

A large painting on the wall at Restaurant Indika depicts Indian musicians with sitars and tablas in an anachronistic cubist style. You don't see many painters doing cubism these days, my dining companion, an art lover from Montrose, remarks. She walks across the empty dining room to inspect the painting more closely. She is immediately met by the hostess, Anita Jaisinghani, and to my chagrin, the two are quickly engaged in a long conversation about art in India. Struggling to maintain my anonymity, I attempt to look engrossed in the menu.

Indika is located in a little white house that looks like a miniature English castle tucked incongruously behind a row of retail businesses on Memorial Drive near Beltway 8. The entranceway doubles as a bar. One wall of the main dining room is covered with mirrors, which reflect the greenery seen through the windows on the other side of the room. The floors are red tile set in an imaginative pattern. Behind the main dining room, a delightful maze of private rooms offers more intimate seating options. The artwork, the fabrics and much of the furnishings are imported from India, Jaisinghani explains to my friend. But as aesthetically pleasing as the little cottage and its trappings may be, the artistry here is in the cooking.

Twin towers of golden-brown crab-stuffed samosas and a little dish of shocking-pink chutney are creatively presented on a unique triangular plate amid a salad of shaved cucumbers sprinkled with sesame seeds. The appetizer is called crabmeat samosas with papaya-ginger chutney, and it's a stunning departure from the usual Indian food in Houston -- not only in its chic presentation but in its very conception. Who ever heard of a samosa stuffed with crabmeat? Or a chutney made of papaya?

When the pastries have cooled enough, I break off a big chunk and dip it in the chutney. The tender lumps of rich, sea-scented crabmeat and the crunchy samosa skin come to life under the jolt of the electrifying chutney. The fresh ginger gives the viscous relish a zesty intensity that reminds me of marmalade. After wolfing both samosas, I find myself cleaning up the rest of the chutney with the fresh, crunchy papadams, a spoon and anything else I can find.

The art lover orders warm spinach along with an Indian cheese called paneer. But the seemingly familiar dish looks nothing like the buffet-line saag paneer she was expecting. The round bowl of pureed spinach and mustard greens is bright Astroturf green and seductively spiced with aromatic fenugreek. It is served with warm cornmeal nan on the side.

Between our appetizers and main courses, we are served the most stunning nan bread I have ever eaten. There are three varieties: the same cornmeal nan that came with the spinach, which tastes a little like corn bread; long, soft, doughy pieces of regular nan brushed with ghee (clarified butter); and, my favorite, nan stuffed with scallions and cilantro. The crispy round bread stuffed with soft onions reminds me of a really good Neapolitan pizza right out of the oven. The hot breads are served with a side dish of yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger, cumin and chiles. It looks a bit like refried beans and makes a spectacular dip.

Montrose girl orders a roasted half-eggplant filled with paneer and cashews. The vegetarian entrée is served with roasted potatoes and cauliflower on the side, and topped with big roasted cashews. The filling of pureed roasted eggplant, onions, grated paneer and cashews is pleasantly thick and gently flavored with a freshly ground masala. The texture calls to mind a vegetarian moussaka.

For my main course, I try duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry. The skin of the big meaty portion of duck has been crisped in the tandoori oven, and I carefully carve each bite to include a little of the crunchy exterior. This is Maple Leaf duck from Illinois; it is meatier and more full-flavored than the Long Island ducklings that Americans are used to. The hot and spicy almond curry is redolent of cumin seed, cloves and anise. When it comes to chiles, Indika doesn't pull any punches.

There is plenty of heat in the curry and in the yellow lentils. I'm drinking a crisp and hoppy British India Pale Ale with my dinner, and it goes well enough with the food. But now I wish I'd ordered wine. It's rare that I want to drink wine with spicy food, but it's also rare to find spicy food with this level of complexity.

As I eat the duck, I marvel at the chef's attention to detail. Every aspect, from appearance to aroma to flavor, has been thought out to an astonishing degree. If you've never seen tandoori duck before (I hadn't), it's easy to get caught up in the novelty of the main attraction and miss all the side touches -- the toasted almonds on the deep brown curry, for instance. Along with their distinct perfume, the almonds provide a rich flavor, a stark color contrast and a fabulous crunchiness to the sauce. Alongside the duck and sauce, there is a stack of firm little haricots verts (green beans) and a mound of fluffy white basmati rice studded with currants.

 

The aroma coming from the plate is incredible. I sniff at my food, trying to figure out the sources of the various components of the bouquet. While the almonds are fragrant, I discover that the rice is even more aromatic. I ask the friendly and ubiquitous Anita Jaisinghani about it as she walks by our table. She explains that the aroma is a combination of the natural perfume of basmati combined with the flowery smell of the saffron with which it is cooked.

It is obvious from her complete command of Punjabi cooking techniques and Indian cuisine in general that Jaisinghani is more than the hostess. My dining companion already has ascertained that she is the owner, but now we discover she is also the head chef. It is an incredible feat to work the front of the house and the kitchen simultaneously, but once you've met Jaisinghani, you can't imagine things any other way. Intelligent, striking and dazzlingly creative, Jaisinghani is a culinary Scheherazade who enchants every man, woman and child who enters her castle.

Jaisinghani intuits that I'm a food critic. The restaurant is so small, so personal, that I gave it away simply by refusing to introduce myself. It's the first time I know of that I've been spotted reviewing in Houston, but it could hardly be avoided. Jaisinghani is on a first-name basis with almost every customer. It's like trying to stay anonymous at a private dinner party. As a result, I think they're giving me more elaborate explanations and more attentive service than usual, but I don't think they're pampering my food in any way. Most if it, like the crab samosas and the papaya chutney, has been prepared in advance.

For the record, I am proud to say that as the restaurant critic for the Houston Press, I adhere strictly to the Association of Food Journalists ethical guidelines, which require reviewers to maintain anonymity. For this reason, I make reservations under other names. I pay with cash or someone else's credit card and get reimbursed by the Press. I never introduce myself to the restaurant's employees or owners. And I don't accept free meals, before or after the review. Nor do I attend the many parties restaurants throw for the media. (Sounds like a pretty dull life, huh?) I do, however, occasionally contact chefs or owners by phone to clarify matters of fact. And so I called Anita Jaisinghani to inquire about her life story.

Born of Hindu Sindhi parents in Northern India, Jaisinghani earned a degree in microbiology in India and then spent ten years working in Canada before she moved to Houston and took up cooking. After catering for a few years, she went to the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and eventually got a job at Cafe Annie as a pastry chef. Robert and Mimi Del Grande are among her most ardent supporters, and Cafe Annie's renowned sommelier, Paul Roberts, put together Indika's short but intriguing wine list. It has been incorrectly reported elsewhere that Del Grande collaborated on her menu. In fact, the innovative Indian dishes are all of her own creation.

The Bombay Café in Los Angeles is generally credited with introducing the new Indian style of cooking to America about ten years ago. The style was created when Bombay-born chef Neela Paniz adapted the traditional techniques and spices of Indian cooking to the fresh ingredients available in Southern California. Paniz made fusion dishes like "California Tandori Salad" popular. In her cookbook, The Bombay Café (Ten Speed Press), Paniz says that because India is short on refrigeration, the cuisine has never featured much fresh fish. And because water is such a valuable commodity, irrigation-intensive crops like lettuce are seldom seen. But Paniz is of an older generation than chefs like Anita Jaisinghani. Fresh fish and salad vegetables (along with refrigerators) have been common in India for 20 years now. So cooking that Paniz considers fusion, young Indian chefs consider their own.

Jaisinghani has never met Paniz or sampled her cooking, but she is well acquainted with another influential Indian chef, Floyd Cardoz. Cardoz works at a place called Tabla in New York. Tabla doesn't bill itself as a new Indian restaurant; Cardoz calls his cooking American food with Indian influences. In this month's Bon Appétit magazine, which is devoted to the new ethnic cooking, Cardoz offers his recipe for goat cheese pizza with Indian spiced tomatoes and mustard greens. It sounds good, but it also sounds like Tabla is trying to appease mainstream tastes. So far, Indika hasn't made any such compromises. If Jaisinghani stays true to her vision, Houstonians could be eating some of the most creative Indian cooking in the country for a while.

 

Which isn't to say that Indika has reached perfection. A tomato-ginger soup with mushroom dumplings gets boring quickly. And seafood seems to present a challenge that Jaisinghani still hasn't quite conquered. Her seafood biryani had been taken off the menu the second time I visited because the chef had too many problems with it. We tried the halibut in coconut-milk curry instead. The mild halibut and the extremely delicate cauliflower-and-mustard-seed curry were well matched, but paled in comparison with the flavors on the rest of the menu. After such wildly innovative dishes as spiced foie gras with fig chutney, or crab samosas with papaya and ginger chutney, one is probably going to find the bland fish and delicate curry a letdown.

But all's well that ends with one of Jaisinghani's desserts. Her experience as a pastry chef at one of Houston's best restaurants obviously has paid off. A simple dish of tapioca is transformed into a humble masterpiece with the addition of sweet mango shreds and a topping of berries. And a plate of traditional Indian cardamom cookies, fresh out of the oven, brings a smile to your face as you pay the bill and say good-bye to owner-chef-hostess Anita Jaisinghani.

While the place is still new, it doesn't take a crystal ball to predict its future. Not only is Jaisinghani an enchanting hostess with impeccable taste, she is also a genius in the kitchen. The new Indian cuisine she is cooking at Restaurant Indika is in a class with the very best in the nation. Book your reservations now.


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