If you love Indian food, then you've got to love the Houston suburbs. Yes, they're stomping grounds for nutters in propaganda-plastered H2's, but they're also home, to the south and west, to Indians and their most authentic and creative eateries. That's why the recent news that two of the most celebrated chefs of the hinterlands were opening up restaurants in the Inner Loop was a big deal, deserving of the trumpeting of conch shells.
Kiran Verma, founder of the acclaimed Ashiana on the far west side (which she sold last year), soundly beat her competitor Anita Jaisinghani of Indika fame in the race into town. Her new restaurant, Kiran's Indian Gourmet and Wine Bar, opened in April in the former Highland Village site of Bombay Palace, the fusty, if competent, old haven of chalky-white River Oaksians. Let the reverse colonizing begin!
Verma, who trained under a chef from the touristy, if prestigious, New Delhi Sheraton, isn't exactly a culinary traditionalist. Ashiana and Kiran's both bravely offer oddities such as tandoori portobello mushroom, an obvious Americanization; Chilean sea bass, an Antarctic fish unknown in India (and shunned by many top chefs in the United States because it's being overfished to the brink of extinction); and rack of lamb, a grotesquerie to South Asians, who like their meat cut into civilized bits and hidden within nan bread. But Kiran's restaurants are fundamentalists compared to Jaisinghani's Indika, where family-style platters (staples of Indian-style shared eating) have been jettisoned in favor of can't-touch-my-dinner plates.
Still, such culinary chutzpah -- sometimes hokey and frustrating, sometimes transcendent -- has been strangely unknown inside the Loop, and this is where Kiran's often expertly fills a void. Most significant, Verma has a Western chef's delicate hand with seafood. Her appetizer of fish pakora (mahimahi battered in cilantro-flecked chick-pea flour) was fried to moist yet crisp perfection and thankfully was free of the bones that plague the Indian street-food version. The unconventional tandoori prawns were exactly al dente and came alongside a tasty and fairly legit ginger, mango and tomato chutney.
But if Verma is to live up to her hype -- and really move Indian cooking in the Inner Loop forward -- she must also strive for a certain measure of authenticity. Her "fusion" menu shouldn't be an excuse to create bland recipes for timid Western palates. To Verma's credit, my fiancée, Rinku, her Indian dad and I were able to extract some dishes from Kiran's kitchen that were spicy enough to please a New Delhi grandma -- though it took some goading. Yet our fears about the food's cred were often inflamed by our fellow diners. One nearby patron mused, "I wonder what chicken biryani is." Another asked the waiter, "What is dal? Is that a kind of bread?"
Indians love to complain about food. The ride home from a typical Indian dinner party is spent gossiping not about the hostess but about her shrikhand and rasmalai. The guests pull no punches. And so that's why, recognizing all the while that Kiran's is probably the best Indian restaurant in the Inner Loop, we should be frank:
The $55 "palace feast" is not fit for a king. Our feast of four seafood and meat dishes arrived lukewarm on platters atop heatless votive candles and seemed in constant threat of falling over. The lamb rhogan josh too closely resembled an Indian-inspired French stew. The korma featured strange bits of canned baby corn and, like the curries at typical Houston Indian eateries, was heavy with cream to compensate for the dearth of ground cashews or almonds that should have thickened it. On the whole, though, the spicing was well balanced.
The ever-important saag paneer and lamb biryani at Kiran's were disappointments. Most Houston saag paneers are made with frozen spinach, paneer (homemade cheese) that tastes like ossified tofu and ridiculous amounts of oil or cream. Kiran's was guilty of most of these offenses, though it generally showed restraint with the oil and cream and included a full bouquet of spices -- just ask for more of them. In a truly great biryani, the lamb should be so tender that it literally melts in your mouth. Kiran's lamb was instead a chewy, French-inspired medium rare and a bit dry. The rice was nicely infused with lamb stock, but still too oily. For the $20 price tag, the biryani should be better.
Some shortcomings at Kiran's could be fixed without eliciting complaints from the Westerners. The salad of diced cucumbers tasted like it had spent the day and possibly a night in the fridge. Our waiter, who wore a voodoo skull ring, forgot to chill the wine before opening it and tried to pass off a misplaced (chunky) chicken tikka as our (ground) chicken kheema, claiming that the two looked the same. In his defense, he had just evacuated from New Orleans, a city not known for its Indian food. Summing up his situation, he asked, "What's the word?" and answered: "Culture shock."
Culture shock also appears to plague Allison Cook, the food writer for the Houston Chronicle, who in her recent, breathlessly Eurocentric review of Kiran's, says the place is unlike "workaday Indian restaurants" where, to Cook at least, "everything tastes rather like everything else." Having quickly dismissed the subcontinent's many millennia-old culinary legacy, she goes on to praise Kiran's wine selection as "civilized." This seems quaint when you consider that most South Asians believe drinking is barbaric.
Cook might have instead referenced civilization with an eye to Indian standards, addressing, for example, the tandoori chicken. It had a pleasant lemony tang and surprisingly decent heat, apparently having been marinated longer than the chicken we'd tried at Ashiana. But was it fresh? The outside lacked sizzle, crunch and, most important, thermal heat. It tasted almost as if it had been steamed.
Then there is the dessert controversy stirred up by Rinku's dad. Rinku and I liked the gulab jamun, or cheese dumplings in cardamom syrup, which was less treacly than average. He thought the syrup was watery and scandalously devoid of saffron. At any rate, we could agree that the kulfi, a dense Indian ice cream, was not right. Rinku's dad picked at ice crystals with his fork. "Been in the freezer too long," he said, crouching for the kill. "Maybe four, five months."
As we mentioned, we actually liked Kiran's. Sure, we wouldn't pay $120 for a meal there if we lived in California or New York or London, but this is Houston, and we'll take what the suburbs can give us.
There's still ample food at Kiran's to write home about. One of the best things on the menu is the boisterous kheema -- a hard-to-find dish of ground chicken, peas, bay leaf, cilantro, garlic, ginger juliennes and pickled lemon peel, which adds a citrus tang. Likewise, the vindaloo could well be the best in Houston. We asked for it spicy and were rewarded on our last visit by a plump Indian waiter who patted me on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, man, I'll make the vindaloo hot!" The dominant clove aroma didn't overpower the tender chunks of chicken in thick sauce radiant with the hot-sour-sweet notes typical of the cuisine of Goa, a former Portuguese colony in South India.
The samosas ranked among the best we've had anywhere; they weren't too thick-shelled or oily and were filled with garam masala, cilantro and distinct, fresh cubes of potato. "In India, these are the kind kids eat!" Rinku's dad exclaimed as he dug in. They weren't too spicy for him either.
Billed as a North Indian restaurant, Kiran's does ample justice to kebabs, which are unmarred by frippery or weak spicing. Verma also prepares great South Indian dishes. There is the aforementioned vindaloo, as well as a Goan coconut curry with shrimp -- both superb.
And cultural judgments notwithstanding, Allison Cook is correct about one thing: The wine list is impressive and well suited to Indian food. There are dry rosés. Maligned since boomers first swilled white zin during their hellion years and woke up to hangovers, rosés -- albeit good ones -- are making a comeback. There is also champagne. Eric Asimov recently wrote in The New York Times that he favors champagne over beer as the perfect accompaniment to spicy Indian food. We thought to marry our interests and enjoyed the Nicholas Feuillatte Premier Cru, a fine sparkling rosé.
Kiran's has inherited the most stately Indian dining room in Houston, a space finished in dark burnished wood and decorated with prints and a large statue of Krishna playing a flute. Parts of it are time-worn, such as the torn seat cushion in our booth, but no matter; on one visit, the back room was packed with tie-clad scientists, many of them Indian, watching a PowerPoint presentation about a drug trial -- a promising sign that the food is on the right track.
Fusion will likely remain Kiran's strong point. A new menu released last week introduced intriguing dishes such as goat cheese tikka and tandoori shrimp salad. The surest way to leave the restaurant with a pleasant taste in your mouth is to try the infused crème brûlée trio, one of the best hybridizations on the menu. A rectangular saucer holds three small square bowls of crème brûlée individually dashed with saffron, pistachio and cardamom. The pistachio bowl is too green to lack food coloring, but don't dwell on this. The flavors are fantastic.
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