For appetizers, there's salad, several kinds of soup, the thin lentil crackers called papadams, and a huge assortment of chutneys, including classics like tamarind and mango, as well as such innovative blends as mint and pomegranate. I tried some split pea soup, which was interestingly flavored with masala, and some papadams with chutney and hot pickles.
When my lunchmate and I returned to our table from our first trip to the buffet, a server offered us bread. But instead of the plain nan we were expecting, he gave us several slices of hot Indian flatbread stuffed with loads of crushed pistachios. It was the first time I'd had pistachio-stuffed Indian bread, and I loved the stuff. It tasted like a pistachio butter sandwich.
On our second trip to the steam table, I found the vegetables even more tempting than the meats -- especially the rich and buttery spinach dish called palak paneer and the fiery, curried cauliflower. I also helped myself to more of the paella-like rice casserole called vegetable biryani. A different Basmati biryani is featured on Ashiana's buffet every day, but whether they're serving the mushroom, chicken or vegetable biryani, each is generously seasoned with whole cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper, and finished with lots of saffron, cream and butter.
My companion has long been a fan of another Indian lunch buffet closer to town, but by the time he got around to Ashiana's dessert selections, which include a heavenly mango mousse, he had conceded that this is by far the best Indian midday buffet in the city.
Kiran Verma, the Indian-born chef who founded Ashiana, has said that she set out to create an ambiance that would appeal to Westerners. True to form, Ashiana looks more British than Indian. There's a posh little room off of the main floor called the Polo Room. It's appointed with dark mahogany trim and decorated with paintings of polo ponies. Seating is also available in the wine cellar, an ornate space in the midst of the restaurant's extensive wine racks.
Some of Ashiana's food borders on fusion cuisine. The intention is to apply the traditions of Northern Indian Mogul cooking to ingredients that appeal to a mainstream Houston audience. The results are mixed. The tandoori salmon, with its chutney-like sauce of cranberries and oranges, is a joyful blend of cultures. But the tandoori lobster is an unmitigated disaster.
The lobster was supposed to be the grand finale of the $50-per-person four-course Indian seafood extravaganza my dining companion and I sampled on another visit. The first course was an innocuous lentil and tomato soup; the second was a crunchy crab samosa with papaya chutney; a spicy shrimp tandoori was third; and then came the wretched lobster.
It wasn't Maine lobster, but some kind of previously frozen tropical lobster tail served with melted butter. A pile of steamed vegetables dominated by shriveled English peas and cubed carrots came on the side. The lobster was dry, tough and chewy. Despite repeated dipping, it didn't absorb the butter.
I reasoned that the buttery spinach they serve on the buffet would be the perfect lubricant to help me choke down the rubbery lobster. So I called the waiter over and ordered palak paneer, which, to my chagrin, wasn't cheap. Making the lobster slightly less unsatisfying raised the price of the $50 Indian seafood extravaganza to $61.
While I waited for my palak, I regarded the steamed peas and carrots. How does a restaurant that makes such spectacular Indian vegetable dishes decide to serve steamed peas and carrots with their most expensive entree? Obviously, the desire to please a Western audience has gotten out of hand in this case. In picking European-style mixed steamed vegetables as a side for tandoori lobster, Ashiana's kitchen seems to have lost confidence in the thing they are supposed to do best: Indian cuisine.
Under Kiran Verma, Ashiana earned a reputation as one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the city. But last September, Verma sold her interest to a former employee named Latika Barhija. I found Barhija in her office the night I ordered the lobster and I asked her what kind of lobster it was. "I don't really know," she replied. "I don't eat lobster."
After consulting her invoices, she told me it was a Bahamian rock lobster. Her suppliers send her different kinds from time to time, she said cheerfully. But clearly, she had no clue how one kind differed from another. She seemed like a nice woman, but not the person I want picking my lobster.
On my last visit, I had intended to order a la carte, but I was discouraged by the prices. Chicken tikka masala, the Indian dish invented in Great Britain, goes for $19. Lamb chop masala sells for $24. Vegetables range from $8.95 to $10.95.
So two of us ordered the "Ashiana feast," which provides one chicken, one lamb, one prawn and one vegetable dish along with bread and other sides for $55. We substituted a dish of chicken in creamed greens called chicken saag for the Westernized chicken tikka masala.
Lamb rhogan josh was leg of lamb cooked with roasted onions and flavored with anise. "Rhogan josh" is a Kashmiri preparation generally made with a lot of chile pepper and tomatoes. Ashiana's version was bland and the meat was chewy. The sauce contained no discernible chile pepper seasoning.
The prawn bhuna was excellent; it featured jumbo shrimp cooked in a dry curry. This kind of dish is made by frying curry spices in hot oil and then tossing in the seafood. The result is a spicy bowl of juicy, quick-cooked shrimp. Navrattan korma, a melange of garden vegetables cooked in cashew sauce, was rich but boring.
The standout of the "feast" was the chicken saag. Saag sounds familiar to Indian food fans because of the popularity of the dish called saag paneer. "Saag" means greens, "palak" means spinach and "paneer" is the word for the mild yogurt cheese that one finds in cubes in these two dishes. In chicken saag, pieces of boneless, skinless chicken came to the table submerged in a bowl of creamed mustard greens vehemently seasoned with oversized dried chile pods. The combination of white meat chicken, creamy greens and hot chiles was sensational. I ate a whole pod for the hell of it and was rewarded with a sweaty forehead. It was a pleasant dinner, all in all.
My several experiences at Ashiana ranged from delightful to dreadful. Have the innovative fusion dishes slipped a little since Barhija bought the restaurant? Perhaps, but the lavish lunch buffet and the traditional Indian dishes still make Ashiana worth a visit.
Fans of chef Kiran Verma, who made Ashiana famous, will be happy to hear that she will soon resurface. Verma confirms that she's currently scouting for a more central location where she'll open a new Indian restaurant to be called Kiran's.
And if that isn't enough good news for curry-loving Inner Loopers, it appears that Indika restaurant's owner, Anita Jaisinghani, has the same sort of thing in mind. Indika, one of the most inventive Indian restaurants in the United States, is located on Memorial near Beltway 8. In a recent phone call, Jaisinghani told me she was looking at locations in the Montrose area. She doesn't intend to sell the original Indika; rather, she wants to move it to a more central neighborhood.
While Verma's verve in the kitchen may be missing at Ashiana these days, don't assume that innovative Indian cooking has suffered a setback. Upscale Indian restaurants are about to take inner-city Houston by storm. There's no telling when these new Indian eateries will actually open their doors, but it's certainly something to look forward to.