More Creamy Spinach, Please: Then and Now at Fusion Grillerz

April 2013: I've spent the past few months locked in a cycle of pain. The pain of eating three pounds of fried rice for lunch every day, regretting it, and comforting that regret with more fried rice. It's a vicious cycle, really, and one conveniently fueled by a lunch hour that isn't, and a relative dearth of nearby options that I haven't gotten sick of. Including the fried rice, I guess, but that's not the point.

The point is, when a new lunch option opens up in the food court under my office in Four Houston Center, meaning I don't have to do much more than turn around at my desk in order to get there, I get excited. If only I could safely ride the escalator while seated...

Sorry, I got lost in a reverie of fatassening languor. Right. New lunch spot. So, it's called "Fusion Grillerz," which apparently means that they grill stuff, and also serve some Indian food. So far, I've not seen much in the way of fusion per se, but I don't really feel the need for a chole burger or hot dogs dressed with saag and raita. Actually, strike that; the Saag-Dog sounds kind of great. Somebody do that.

So far, I've stuck to the Indian side of the menu (and the specials board), because there are already at least a million places to get mediocre hamburgers, salads and wraps without having to brave the actual light of day, but relatively few places for Indian food. I'm sure I'll get around to ordering a burger here eventually; perhaps I'll even see if I can get them to fusion it up for me a bit, playing mad scientist with the elements of the Indian plate lunches.

Speaking of, the $5 vegetable-plate lunch is not at all a bad deal if you're in the mood for something a bit out of the tunnel-ordinary, but nothing you'd seek out when not held captive by the enchantment of air-conditioning and piped-in adult contemporary music. Of course, your mileage may vary.

When I mentioned my visit, a food-savvy coworker practically gushed enthusiasm for his butter chicken and palak paneer. For my $5, I was reasonably pleased with the daily dal, a somewhat soupy concoction of disintegrated yellow lentils. Just thick enough not to be actual soup, it boasted a pleasant and punchy array of spices, perking up the otherwise mild dish. Mustard seed, cumin, turmeric and red chile bounced along, adding alternating dusky, earthy and pungent flair and popping with texture from some still-partially-intact spices.

My saag paneer was a different story, tasting a bit too much of butter and not enough of saag or paneer. The small cubes of cheese required slightly more bite than should be necessary, and the whole thing called to mind a slightly mediocre spinach and artichoke dip. A bit of restraint with the salt shaker wouldn't hurt, either.

Don't be overly concerned with the raita or the naan; neither will impress. In the future, I'd ask for extra rice instead, slightly overcooked though it was.


Current Day: So, that was back in April. In July, Fusion Grillerz came under new management. As I waited in line there recently, a man carrying a tray of butter chicken samples started chatting with me about the new direction. Basically, they had decided that there were enough burger joints, and were planning to focus on the Indian selection. I told him I thought that was a smart move, Babu Bhatt fears set aside.

Since then, I've been back a few times, and can report that it was a smart decision. The food has improved, and word has gotten out. Rare are the times I've been in the Houston Center food court and not found the Fusion Grillerz (I wish the name would come under new management) line rivaling that of the adjacent Subway, a reliable though depressing benchmark.

Prices have increased slightly, with biryani and mixed plates going for $7 a pop. You can also tack on a drink or dessert for a buck, most days.

Even with that price hike, the chicken biryani is a deceptively large portion. It boasts a nice, sneaking heat, buoyed by plenty of whole and fresh spices. Cardamom and clove stand out, with a good dose of toasted cumin. The meat was tender and full-flavored, with just a hint of tang from what I assume is a yogurt marinade, and the rice had a nicely fluffy texture, with well differentiated grains. The only problem lies at the bottom of the takeout container, where the rice steams a bit under its own weight, getting a bit listless. It's not a big gripe, especially if you end up eating your food with as much gusto as I assume you will.

For the mixed plate, you get your choice of entrée, accompanied by steamed rice or vegetable biryani. The management seems fine with a mix-and-match approach, and many patrons seem to favor a little of this and a little of that in lieu of one large portion. Of those options, I was particularly struck by the improvements to the "Creamy Spinach," which had so disappointed me under the old regime. The cheese is now silky and tender, the greens not overly pureed and retaining some texture. Spiced gently, with cardamom standing out most, allowing the greens to taste of themselves, it was like a completely different dish, and one I'll be adding a bit of to my carton with each visit. The bread is still pointless.

There are a lot of options in the tunnels and surrounding warrens that fit the "pretty good, considering" qualifier. Those are very much worth noting, considering. I'm pleased that Fusion Grillerz seems intent on losing the qualifier entirely. This isn't destination food, but it's still pretty good. It would be pretty good in any setting, which, for a Tunnel Explorer, is high praise indeed.

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