Kiran Verma, founder of the acclaimed Ashiana on the far west side (which she sold last year), soundly beat her competitor Anita Jaisinghani of Indika fame in the race into town. Her new restaurant, Kiran's Indian Gourmet and Wine Bar, opened in April in the former Highland Village site of Bombay Palace, the fusty, if competent, old haven of chalky-white River Oaksians. Let the reverse colonizing begin!
Verma, who trained under a chef from the touristy, if prestigious, New Delhi Sheraton, isn't exactly a culinary traditionalist. Ashiana and Kiran's both bravely offer oddities such as tandoori portobello mushroom, an obvious Americanization; Chilean sea bass, an Antarctic fish unknown in India (and shunned by many top chefs in the United States because it's being overfished to the brink of extinction); and rack of lamb, a grotesquerie to South Asians, who like their meat cut into civilized bits and hidden within nan bread. But Kiran's restaurants are fundamentalists compared to Jaisinghani's Indika, where family-style platters (staples of Indian-style shared eating) have been jettisoned in favor of can't-touch-my-dinner plates.
Still, such culinary chutzpah -- sometimes hokey and frustrating, sometimes transcendent -- has been strangely unknown inside the Loop, and this is where Kiran's often expertly fills a void. Most significant, Verma has a Western chef's delicate hand with seafood. Her appetizer of fish pakora (mahimahi battered in cilantro-flecked chick-pea flour) was fried to moist yet crisp perfection and thankfully was free of the bones that plague the Indian street-food version. The unconventional tandoori prawns were exactly al dente and came alongside a tasty and fairly legit ginger, mango and tomato chutney.
But if Verma is to live up to her hype -- and really move Indian cooking in the Inner Loop forward -- she must also strive for a certain measure of authenticity. Her "fusion" menu shouldn't be an excuse to create bland recipes for timid Western palates. To Verma's credit, my fiancée, Rinku, her Indian dad and I were able to extract some dishes from Kiran's kitchen that were spicy enough to please a New Delhi grandma -- though it took some goading. Yet our fears about the food's cred were often inflamed by our fellow diners. One nearby patron mused, "I wonder what chicken biryani is." Another asked the waiter, "What is dal? Is that a kind of bread?"
Indians love to complain about food. The ride home from a typical Indian dinner party is spent gossiping not about the hostess but about her shrikhand and rasmalai. The guests pull no punches. And so that's why, recognizing all the while that Kiran's is probably the best Indian restaurant in the Inner Loop, we should be frank:
The $55 "palace feast" is not fit for a king. Our feast of four seafood and meat dishes arrived lukewarm on platters atop heatless votive candles and seemed in constant threat of falling over. The lamb rhogan josh too closely resembled an Indian-inspired French stew. The korma featured strange bits of canned baby corn and, like the curries at typical Houston Indian eateries, was heavy with cream to compensate for the dearth of ground cashews or almonds that should have thickened it. On the whole, though, the spicing was well balanced.
The ever-important saag paneer and lamb biryani at Kiran's were disappointments. Most Houston saag paneers are made with frozen spinach, paneer (homemade cheese) that tastes like ossified tofu and ridiculous amounts of oil or cream. Kiran's was guilty of most of these offenses, though it generally showed restraint with the oil and cream and included a full bouquet of spices -- just ask for more of them. In a truly great biryani, the lamb should be so tender that it literally melts in your mouth. Kiran's lamb was instead a chewy, French-inspired medium rare and a bit dry. The rice was nicely infused with lamb stock, but still too oily. For the $20 price tag, the biryani should be better.
Some shortcomings at Kiran's could be fixed without eliciting complaints from the Westerners. The salad of diced cucumbers tasted like it had spent the day and possibly a night in the fridge. Our waiter, who wore a voodoo skull ring, forgot to chill the wine before opening it and tried to pass off a misplaced (chunky) chicken tikka as our (ground) chicken kheema, claiming that the two looked the same. In his defense, he had just evacuated from New Orleans, a city not known for its Indian food. Summing up his situation, he asked, "What's the word?" and answered: "Culture shock."