The Indian chicken enchilada at Cafe Monsoon on Westheimer is a crepe rolled around some curried palak (spinach) studded with chunks of tandoori chicken and topped with melted cheese. It is served with rice and beans on the side -- if you're willing to count dal (seasoned lentils) as beans.
I expected to hate the gimmicky Indian-Mexican fusion dish, but the truth is, thanks to the spicy seasoning in the rich palak puree, it's one of the best spinach enchiladas I've ever had. It's one of several Indian fusion dishes at Monsoon that sound peculiar and taste great.
Monsoon's chicken coconut curry is served over noodles, which is unheard of in Indian cooking. But the dish, which tastes like some sort of Indian-Thai fusion, is spectacular. The rich coconut-milk curry sauce is blended with the same springy, square-cut egg noodles that you find in pad thai, and the noodles are bound with the same cooked egg. But I think I like this dish more than pad thai. The huge portion was a favorite at our table.
An appetizer called Bollywood chicken is advertised as chicken pieces served in a sauce that's "the new rage in Bombay." In fact, they taste exactly like buffalo chicken wings. Another appetizer I'd hoped to sample is a version of oysters Rockefeller made with curried spinach. I saw it on an earlier version of the menu, but this time, unfortunately, it isn't available.
About a year ago, Houston restaurant veteran Dan Blasingame and a team of young chefs and managers acquired an Indian restaurant. Keeping its original kitchen staff for the classical Indian dishes and the lunch buffet, they relaunched it as Cafe Monsoon Wine and Curry Grill. The idea was to change the way Houston eats Indian food. And while they may not have accomplished as much as they intended, they've made quite a statement. The fusion items they've come up with are absolutely inspired. But the wine-bar part of the concept is a tougher sell.
Monsoon has a monumental wine list with excruciatingly detailed charts and graphs suggesting pairings of fine wines with Indian dishes. The restaurant stocks some impressive bottles, but unfortunately they're poorly stored.
At a recent dinnertime visit, our party was seated in a small dining room near the front door. Two walls of this area were covered with wine bottles. The temperature outside was well over 90, and the air conditioner was failing to keep pace. It was so hot at our table, the waiter brought out a portable table fan and set it up to blow in our direction. The wine rack got no such relief. Judging by feel, I'd guess the wine inside the bottles was 75 degrees, if not warmer.
Wine deteriorates rapidly at this temperature, but even if the bottles were still sound, who wants to drink warm wine in a hot restaurant? I gave the concept a chance anyway. With the "fall-off-the-bone lamb nijan," a shank braised in a ginger and garlic curry sauce, I dutifully sampled the recommended glass of Cabernet. The lamb was tender, and the curry sauce was quite piquant. The Cab had lots of lovely cigar-box aromas and tart fruit flavors. I'm willing to agree that no other red varietal would complement the lamb quite as well. But who cares? I don't drink red wine with lamb curry. I prefer a cold beer, especially in the summer.
It's not a matter of principle or anything. It's just that I've been through this spicy-food-and-wine-matching exercise before. Back in the heyday of Southwestern cuisine, I attended countless wine dinners at which we attempted to find the perfect Riesling for green-chile-and-crab enchiladas and just the right Rhône varietals for rabbit in red chile sauce. But in the end, nobody was convinced of anything. The restaurants and wineries were pushing wine to boost their bottom lines. The rest of us did our best not to come out and admit the frosty cold truth of the matter: We were dying for a beer.
There's a piano near the front door of Cafe Monsoon. Seated before it, a male mannequin with long, lank black hair is dressed in bright Indian fabrics. "Is that supposed to be Michael Jackson?" a wiseass friend wondered. Otherwise, the restaurant is unobtrusively decorated in commercial carpets and standard restaurant furniture with some pleasantly eccentric accents. I particularly like the large statue of the seated elephant god in the middle of the buffet tables.
On my first visit to Cafe Monsoon, I used my two-plate strategy on the lunch buffet. Before I got any hot vegetables or rice and curry, I filled a preliminary plate with cucumber salad, chutneys and whatever other cold dishes looked appealing. As I neared the end of the line on my first go-around, I saw a bowl of cocktail shrimp and attempted to spoon some over my salad. A diminutive Indian chef who was standing nearby suddenly came at me in a howling fit of "No, no, no!" He stopped me mid-shovelful and insisted that the shrimp were available only in a curry dish he was preparing. I meekly returned the crustaceans to the bowl.
A few minutes later, he came over to our table with an apologetic smile and plates of the curry for my guest and me. The shrimp in creamy coconut curry sauce was served over what looked like rice, but turned out to be rice-shaped pasta. It was a wonderful yellow turmeric-flavored curry, and the pasta-for-rice substitution was quite a surprise. It was also, as far as I can recall, the only made-to-order dish I've ever had at an Indian lunch buffet.
The new owners of Cafe Monsoon got an early lesson in the importance of such buffets. Around the time they opened the restaurant, during an appearance on the popular Houston AM radio show Music Masala, they attempted to explain their approach to Indian fusion cuisine. But the audience had other ideas. The listeners wanted to discuss the lunch buffet. It seems that even in the Indian community, the all-you-can-eat buffet is the most popular measure of an Indian restaurant.
And so the owners of Cafe Monsoon resigned themselves to building a better buffet. Not only did they add the chef station, they also put a soft-serve machine full of mango ice cream in the dessert section. And a manager told us the restaurant has just begun offering more cooked-to-order specials at lunch. For a $4 upgrade, you can get roasted salmon, grilled shrimp or sautéed scallops along with the rest of the buffet.
If you judge an Indian restaurant by the lunch buffet, this place will knock your sandals off. And if you're interested in innovative Indian fusion dishes, try dinner at Cafe Monsoon Wine and Curry Grill -- with or without the wine.
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