Wall of Flavor
There is no polite way to suck a goat bone. And the goat korma masala at La Sani is served in the authentic fashion, bones and all. So at some point you have to pick one up with your fingers and have at it. I'm not embarrassed in the least. After all, both of my dining companions have just unceremoniously extracted large fruit pits from their mouths.
The one to my right found a whole tamarind seed in the fabulously complex chicken biryani, a sort of Indian risotto made with basmati rice layered with meat and spices and then baked. There were whole chicken bones in there too, along with big pieces of ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. My friend on the left was trying to cool her mouth with the wonderfully sweet and tart red plum chutney when she discovered it was made from whole, unpitted dried plums. Fishing things out of your mouth and trying to identify them is part of the fun here.
The food at La Sani is some of the spiciest in the city. Of course, you expect fiery curries and hot masalas in the Little Karachi neighborhood around Bissonnet and U.S. 59, but this place is something special. The food here isn't just incredibly hot, it's spicy in every sense of the word.
Few restaurants cook with whole cardamom pods and whole pieces of cinnamon bark, because the average customer freaks out when he finds such objects in his mouth. La Sani, a halal restaurant whose patrons are mostly Pakistanis and Muslim Indians, pays little attention to these mainstream inhibitions. And as a result, it turns out food that ululates with flavor. Imagine record producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recording technique transmuted into a cooking style, and you have some idea what to expect from La Sani's "wall of flavor."
Whole ginger, fenugreek seeds, chiles, garlic, cumin seeds and coriander come blaring at you from out of the palak paneer in a combination so intense that you can barely tell you're eating spinach. Smearing it on some hot roti bread with a little plum chutney on the side, I could make a meal out of the spiced spinach and fried cheese chunks alone. Palak paneer is made with spinach and tomatoes and is nearly black; saag paneer, which is also on the menu, is made with a combination of spinach and mustard greens and stays bright green.
Goat korma masala offers another sensory maximum load. Korma means "braised," and masala is a spice mix, so a korma masala is a spiced braising liquid in which meats are cooked. Moghul korma masala is a rich gravy often made with nuts, saffron and cream, while southern Indian korma masala might contain coconut milk and tomatoes. La Sani's version seems to be made with clarified butter, chile peppers and heaping handfuls of whole spices. In the goat korma masala alone, I find a dozen whole black peppercorns, several whole cloves, some whole cinnamon bark, half a dozen fruity green cardamom pods and an equal number of smoky black cardamom pods. And those are just the ones I didn't swallow.
Shrimp masala sounds pretty ordinary, and when I see the smallish, tightly curled crustaceans in the bowl, I'm extremely dubious. Houstonians expect big, juicy, just-cooked-enough shrimp, and these look anything but. One bite of the masala sauce, though, and my prejudices are forgotten. The buttery orange gravy has a hint of creamy sweetness that offsets the shrimp spectacularly. It's also fiendishly hot.
Unfortunately, they don't have any alcohol at La Sani. And this being a Muslim restaurant, bringing your own bottle would be culturally insensitive. So we order a pitcher of the "La Sani drink special," a concoction of fruit, juices and carbonated soda. It's refreshing and it cuts the heat -- but a cold beer it ain't.
With its dark wood dining chairs, colorful embroideries and white linen tablecloths, La Sani is much more attractively decorated than most of the Pakistani restaurants I've visited in Houston. Each white porcelain plate, cup, bowl and vase on the table bears the La Sani logo in cobalt blue. And the place is kept meticulously tidy.
Lunch is the best deal at La Sani; the buffet goes for $7.99. A steam table is set up at the rear with nine hot dish choices. Then there's a selection of soups, salads and chutneys. Another little table holds a choice of two desserts. And at lunch, you don't mind the lack of beer.
The day I visited, standouts included kabob seekh, a grilled ground meat cylinder; aloo keemah, an insanely spicy ground meat and potato casserole; and a ginger chicken curry. The entrées were accompanied by a biryani rice dish and an unlimited supply of fresh nan bread as well as the cucumber-yogurt salad called raita and the dried red plum chutney. For vegetables, there was a buttery squash curry, a hearty chickpea masala and a lentil dish called dal mong, all of them extremely hot.
The vegetable dishes seemed to include a sprinkling of green beans. But when I put a few of the long, skinny things in my mouth and chewed, I started to hallucinate. When the endorphin rush subsided and my consciousness re-entered the terrestrial plane, I realized the pods were actually very hot peppers. The vegetables, like the meat dishes, were seasoned with lots of whole spices that I had to remove from my mouth as I chewed.
The vegetables here are tasty, though not as creative as those found on the average Indian buffet line. If there's a major difference between Indian and Pakistani food, it is the Pakistani emphasis on meat. Southern Indian food is usually entirely meatless, which makes restaurants like Udupi Café and Madras Pavilion popular among local vegetarians. And even the northern Indian restaurants in Houston usually include lots of vegetable choices among the buffet offerings.
"Pakistan is a through-and-through meat-eating community," the famous Pakistani chef Mehboob Khan once told an Indian newspaper. "Vegetables, we believe, are for the poor. For us, a party should have preparations of lamb, chicken and fish -- dals and vegetables are low on the priority list.''
For spice-loving carnivores like myself, a top-end Pakistani restaurant such as La Sani offers the most exciting cuisine of the subcontinent. The lunch buffet is a good place to start, but it's the dishes on the dinner menu that are really enticing. Which brings us back to the hot food/no beer problem.
For my last dinner at La Sani I employed a technique that I highly recommend for spicy halal fare. I called the restaurant and ordered food to go. That way you get to sample the best dishes and enjoy them with your choice of beverages. I brought home bhunna gosht, a spicy roasted mutton dish; chicken handi, a creamy curry made with chiles and cashew butter; and some alo palak, a mixture of spinach and potatoes. I also got some rice, raita, chutney and two orders of buttered nan. Then I laid out the containerized feast on the dining room table along with a six-pack of cold Tecate.
"What'd you get for dinner?" my dining companion asked eagerly.
"Mutton, honey," I said.
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