This is the bougiest samosa I’ve ever seen,” my dining partner whispered to me as the beautifully plated pastries arrived. It was fancy, to be sure — the crab versions come two to an order for $14 (the regular potato ones are just $4 each).
But after I sliced into it, it became clear why the samosa demanded such a price premium — it was crammed full of tender, juicy crab meat, and there were few vegetal distractions. The lack of typical potato made it seem more like a deconstructed crab cake inside a samosa shell, but no complaints. The small mound of chutney provided a perfect contrast to the samosa; I just wished there’d been more of it, but perhaps that’s why the waiter at Kiran’s had suggested the sweet-sauced fish as an accompanying appetizer.
If you’re used to samosas haphazardly scattered on industrial metal trays with sauce dumped in neighboring compartments at certain Hillcroft establishments, you’ll find more than a little contrast at Kiran’s.
The difference between the reincarnation of Kiran’s on Richmond and its surroundings is also dramatic. The new location of the upscale Indian fusion restaurant — in the works since last April — is surrounded by empty buildings awaiting new tenants, and facing a long stretch of Richmond occupied by gray corporate buildings.
However, walk through the gilded brass doors — which opened officially to the public in January of this year — and you’ll find the vast dining room grand, carpeted and elegant.
Small touches reflect executive chef and owner Kiran Verma’s vision and attention to detail, like the small, rippled gold bowls arrayed in an elegant pattern along one wall. A polished bar and lounge area offers comfortable bar stools and a long communal table. Besides the floor-to-ceiling windows that face the road, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a different world.
At a Wednesday night dinner visit, we skipped drinks and went straight to studying the extensive menu. Appetizers included traditional American offerings with an Indian twist (think crab cakes with ginger and orange rind, or a goat cheese and beet salad with spiced cashews and basil yogurt), as well as more traditional Indian street foods and classic curries.
Back to the samosas: Diners have four choices when it comes to the triangular fried pastries (or the pakoras or kebabs, for that matter): crab and fresh corn, lamb, potato, or mushroom and feta. We settled on the crab samosas. While we had been teetering on the edge of ordering the pani poori, our waiter, after asking us if we had “eaten Indian food before,” persuaded us that the chile tikka (diner’s choice of ordering it with chicken, cod or paneer) would better accompany the samosas.
This turned out to be a good choice. The fish was crispy-edged, moist on the inside and drenched in what tasted almost like a Thai sweet chile sauce. A few chunks of mild peppers cut through the sweetness of the sauce.
More choices faced us for the entrée: There’s a tandoori section (where our waiter highlighted the rack of lamb and the Chilean sea bass); a classics section (where butter chicken, vindaloos, kormas, keemas and curries live); an extensive selection of vegetarian sides; biryani; a wide variety of stuffed naan; and, finally, an MP lobster tasting. Overwhelmed, my dining partner opted to benchmark the chicken tikka masala (which was fine, though we wished the spices had been more pronounced). I bravely forged ahead with the choice-ridden vegetarian feast (four vegetarian sides, cucumber raita, saffron rice and paratha).
Of the 21 vegetarian sides, I chose the malai kofta (vegetables and cheese dumplings in a cashew sauce), mushroom mattar (mushrooms with peas), bengan bartha (tandoor-roasted eggplant) and paneer makhni (handmade cheese in a tomato and cream sauce). We had originally wanted to try a stuffed naan, but our waiter gently steered us away, reminding us that my order came with paratha, a flaky, whole-grain flatbread that differs from naan in that it is typically unleavened and fried rather than baked.
The vegetarian feast is an enormous amount of food.
The side dishes arrived in four separate bowls on a platter, with paratha and rice served separately (the cucumber raita was nowhere to be found, unfortunately). The eggplant came in an almost diplike form reminiscent of noncreamy baba ghanoush, the minced eggplant flesh mixed with peas, red peppers and cilantro. The charred and flaky paratha, far less greasy than other specimens in town, made for a perfect dipping vehicle. We also delighted in piling the bouncy chunks of mushrooms interspersed with crisp snap peas and caramelized onions on top of the paratha, though the mushrooms were my least favorite of the sides.
Studded with a small amount of Craisins, golden raisins and cashews, the fluffy rice pilaf was ideal for sopping up the other two dishes: a light tomato cream sauce that pooled around the slim rectangles of housemade paneer, and the sweet sauce surrounding the cheese dumplings, whose texture was light and almost spongy, like pureed cottage cheese. Though the portions are generous, the curries we sampled were surprisingly light — luckily, the dishes seem to veer away from the breed of Indian food that will leave you in a mild food coma.
Classic French techniques shine in the dessert menu, where cardamom-spiced molten chocolate cake, saffron panna cotta and a trio of crème brûlée flank classic Indian desserts like gulab jamun. Feather-light around the edges and barely gooey on the inside, the molten chocolate cake rode a very subtle spice line. Similarly, we could not detect distinct flavors in the crème brûlée.
Our choice paralysis was relieved during lunch, when diners can find both an edited menu and lighter options. Most of the dishes offered during dinner are compressed down at midday to just a handful of curries, a meat and vegetarian thali. Lunch is also a good time to indulge in biryani for a few dollars less than at dinner — the five types offered during dinner are reduced to either chicken or wild mushrooms, vegetables and paneer for a vegetarian option, a good choice if you want to sample two of the dinner options at once.
We chose the dosa and the prawn and green mango curry. Rolled into a dramatic tube, the lentil and rice crepe was light and crisp, with just enough give. Stuffed with a spiced potato mixture and served alongside sambar, a flavorful lentil-based stew; tarka raita, a spiced yogurt dip; and coconut and tomato chutney, it made for a filling yet still light-feeling lunch.
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Four giant prawns studded the well-spiced curry, which was served with a reasonable amount of rice pilaf for a perfectly portioned lunch. The prawns were unfortunately slightly firmer than I would have preferred; it seemed that just a few too many seconds of cooking had rendered them tough instead of supple.
However, we barely resisted ordering a second round of the pear and arugula naan, which we dipped into the remains of the curry: Hot and pliable, the sweet pear was a perfect foil to the slightly charred flatbread.
I left dreaming about naan — there’s goat cheese and rosemary, wild mushrooms and blue cheese, paneer and spinach and feta, to name a few — along with the rest of the menu I still haven’t tried. Despite a few flavor misses, the backbone of technique underlying the food is undeniable and the adventurous nature of the fusion menu is, to me, worth the risk.
2925 Richmond, 713-960-8472, kiranshouston.com. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sundays.
Crab samosas $14
Chile tikka cod $14
Chicken tikka masala $24
Vegetarian feast for one $35
Mango curry $18
Lunch dosa $14
Crème brûlée $12
Cardamom molten chocolate cake $12
Mango lassi $6
Masala chai $6
Stuffed naan $5