The host at Annapurna South Indian Cuisine on NASA Road 1 brings some puffy pooris to our table. Served hot out of the oven, the paper-thin flatbreads look like inflated pancakes. I tear one apart and use some of the flimsy skin to wrap up a bite of buttery lamb curry and a dab of the creamed spinach and cheese called palak paneer. The daily lunch buffet at Annapurna is pretty good, but it isn't nearly as impressive as the weekend buffet, which must be one of the best Indian food experiences in Houston.
Annapurna is the Hindu goddess of food and cooking. In most likenesses, she holds a gem-studded bowl filled with food in one hand and a golden spoon in the other. There's a little shrine to her in the back of this unassuming shopping-center eatery. And I, for one, am ready to offer this restaurant and its goddess some praise. The Clear Lake crowd is lucky to have an Indian restaurant this good.
As in most South Indian restaurants, you get a dosa with the buffet. A dosa is even larger than a poori. It's a thin flatbread with a crispy crust rolled around a filling. Annapurna's dosas are about 18 inches long. They look huge but pale in comparison to really big dosas. The Woodlands Garden Cafe in Bombay reportedly serves a "family-style" dosa that's five feet long.
Like tacos, dosas are served many different ways. A plain dosa is made with rice flour; a bubbly kal dosa is made with fermented rice flour; and a rava dosa is made with a combination of rice and wheat flours. At Annapurna, you can get these with such fillings as butter, homemade cottage cheese, plain potato, spicy potato, or rice and lentils. The dosa that comes free with the buffet is the plain one filled with your choice of plain or spicy potatoes. Get the spicy.
The first time I got a dosa, I was confused about the discrepancy between the little bit of filling and the long expanse of flatbread. I tried my best to spread the filling along the length of the thing to make a proper taco. And then, to the amusement of nearby patrons, I attempted to pick the whole thing up and shove it in my mouth. Finally, somebody explained that you don't eat dosas the way you eat tacos. Instead, you tear off little pieces of the pancake and use them to wrap up some of the filling. It was one of those red-faced moments that put the "duh" in dining.
Once I got over the embarrassment of that first dosa, I came to love Houston's South Indian restaurants. The extensive yet inexpensive vegetarian buffets at places like Bombay Sweets (5827 Hillcroft), Madras Pavilion (3910 Kirby), Anand Bhavan (6662 Southwest Freeway) and Udupi Cafe (3559 Highway 6 in Sugar Land) are hard to beat for value. Madras Pavilion is also certified kosher, which makes it a popular holiday hangout for the Jewish community. (It's open Christmas Day.)
But for those of us who are neither vegetarian nor kosher, Annapurna goes the others one better. You can get all your favorite South Indian vegetarian dishes and breads here, but you can also get the fabulous North Indian lamb curries, chicken stew and fish.
In fact, the first time I looked over Annapurna's menu, I didn't even realize it was a South Indian restaurant. It was on a Sunday around dinnertime. After dropping off a friend at Hobby Airport, I swung by to pick up some food to go. I'd always been told that it was unfair to judge an Indian restaurant by its buffet, which is often loaded with cheap popular stuff like chicken tikka masala. So I ordered chicken korma, lamb kadai gosht, palak paneer and Manchurian cauliflower off Annapurna's menu. The manager took my order, but he was disappointed. He argued that the buffet was a better idea, especially on a Sunday night.
While I waited for my order, I browsed the buffet and watched some of the other patrons fill their plates. That's when I realized what an interesting blend of South and North Indian foods they had going on here. Tandoori, nan and meaty northern-style curries share the steam table with southern pooris, idlis and spicy vegetable dishes. And on the cold end of the buffet, an assortment of chutneys, pickles and raita surround the makings of the South Indian snack food called chaat. I took my food home, making a mental note to return on a Sunday night.
The korma (chicken stewed in a mild coconut-curry sauce) was a big hit ladled over jasmine rice. And so was the spinach, which was exceptionally rich and buttery. Most of the buttered cauliflower went uneaten. And I seemed to be the only one who liked the lamb kadai gosht. The lamb pieces were cooked on the bone with bell pepper in a tomato-and-onion curry sauce. It was a little too chewy and a little too spicy for my housemates.
The Moghlai cuisine of North India and Pakistan includes nan and other breads that are baked in the tandoori oven. South Indian cuisine has an even larger assortment of breads and batter cakes, but few are baked. There's the pancakelike poori and dosa, and then there's the steamed rice cake called idli that's often eaten topped with chutneys or lentils. There's also a fried herb and black pepper-flecked lentil flour doughnut called a vada that's quite pleasant dunked in the spicy vegetarian soup called sambar.
I'd never seen all of these North and South Indian breads in the same place until I hit the Sunday-night buffet at Annapurna. I was overwhelmed by the choices that night. I started with a bowl of peppery sambar, which was thickened with lentils and loaded with carrots and vegetables. I also got a hot, crunchy lentil doughnut for dunking in the soup. Then I loaded a plate with rice, buttery lamb curry, creamy spinach and yellow lentil dahl spooned over an idli, with tamarind and coconut chutney and lime pickles. I went back for a second plate of spicy chickpea masala with a wedge of nan on top. Meanwhile, on the side, I was served the complimentary dosa and lots of hot pooris.
But by the time I'd eaten all of the alluring curries and vegetables, I was too full to sample the chaat. And anyway, if the Indian clientele that eats here is any example, you are supposed to eat your chaat first.
"Chaat is the hardest thing to describe," says Anita Jaisinghani of Indika, Houston's cutting-edge Indian restaurant. "It is kind of like a salad, a blend of uncooked cold foods with sweet, sour and tangy flavors, usually composed on cold onions and tomatoes and some crunchy stuff like puffed rice. It's not considered a meal. It's usually a late-afternoon snack."
At Annapurna, most of the chaat lovers start with the crispy fried rice, which looks like Rice Krispies, spooning it onto a plate or into the bottom of a bowl. Next come cooked potato cubes and yogurt. Then they add tamarind and cilantro chutney. Onions, peppers, nuts and other crunchy, spicy and sour condiments are spooned over the top. So I made another pesky mental note to come back and try Annapurna's chaat someday at lunchtime. But the plan was foiled.
"Sorry, we only serve chaat on Sunday night," the manager told me on a Tuesday afternoon. The lunch buffet, which was considerably cheaper than the Sunday-night buffet, was a completely different experience. There was no chaat, fewer vegetables and none of the rich lamb curries I had before. In their places were steam-table compartments filled with that British mainstay, chicken tikka masala; some spicy fried fish; and bland, stir-fried chicken. I suppose the stir-fry was an example of that oddity known as Indo-Chinese cooking. But it wasn't a very good example -- it tasted boring and generic compared to everything else I'd eaten here.
Try Annapurna on a Sunday evening. That's when the buffet line overflows with a full array of chaat, flatbreads, South Indian vegetables, North Indian nan and tandoori, and really tasty curries. There's no point in bothering with the lunch buffet. You can get bad Chinese food anywhere.
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