Restaurant Reviews

The Year of the Indian

It's a good year for Indian restaurants. Thanks to the techy Indian community that thrives around NASA, so far 1995 has seen the debut of Mogul in Clear Lake, with its astonishing okra and chutneys; and now, imported from the same area, comes Pavani -- a Clear Lake operation that recently opened a welcome Houston outpost on the Southwest Freeway near Fondren.

Indian buffs and curiosity seekers alike should seek the place out for its spectacular crepe variants, its frisky hand with spices and chiles, its kaleidoscopic thali dinners that include the best dal and the puffiest poori breads in town. The odds work in your favor here: out of the 22 dishes I sampled, there was precisely one I didn't like.

Late Saturday mornings are prime time at Pavani, when well-dressed Indian families congregate in a contemporary, minimal room to snack on South Indian specialties that make gratifying brunch fare. Gigantic dosas, the paper-thin crepes made of lentil flour, sail from the kitchen like miniature dirigibles, so airy they seem about to fly right off their plates. Goblets of mango lassi, the buttermilk-and-yogurt drink that is as cool and summery as its pale-apricot coloring, tamp down the fires that smolder in unexpected places.

That creamy, buff-colored substance into which you've just dipped a brittle piece of dosa? Deceptively mild-looking coconut chutney that surprises with a sneaky chile afterburn. Hotter still: a tomato chutney that comes on fresh and gardenlike before hitting you with a chile blast. Proof positive you're awake: the gently sinus-clearing brew called sambar, a robust vegetable soup that acts as a universal sauce, dip and adjunct for Pavani's various crepes, pancakes and vegetable patties. Thickened with lentils and coconut, fragrant with coriander and cumin, sambar is deeply satisfying stuff.

The real glory among the South Indian specialties here, though, is a crepe variant called rava dosa. Made with cream of wheat and rice flour, it emerges from its skillet lacy and slightly pillowy at once, like some gorgeously crisped, edible doily. Folded around oniony spiced potatoes, it becomes rava masala dosa -- such a triumph of contrasting textures that I didn't even care that the potatoes involved were nowhere near as compelling as the mustard-seeded, cilantro-shot ones that used to be found at the late, lamented Madras Cafe.

Traditional fermentation of the various lentil and rice batters is what give Pavani's crepes and pancakes their lacy, air-frothed appearance and tangy, sourdough taste. Uthappam, a fat sourdough pancake laced with onion and green chile, comes off the griddle browned crisp on both sides and ready for chutney; cut into quesadilla-style wedges, one is plenty to share. There are stranger snacks that I have every intention of returning to try: lentil patties in ginger-and-chile-spiked yogurt; a crepe made of mung bean flour; and cream of wheat cooked with butter, ginger, onions, chilies and cashews, which sounds as if it could give all those trendy steel-cut oat porridges a run for their money.

The rest of Pavani's menu runs to the conventional, but even the basic Indian-restaurant standbys take on a certain luster when they're ordered as part of a thali dinner, which comes in an array of silvery cups on a big, silvery platter. This one-person smorgasbord costs from $9 to $13 and constitutes a swell way to eat, since it ensures variety and eliminates the usual Indian-restaurant haggling over which dishes the table is going to share.

Say you settle on a vegetable curry such as palak mattar paneer, a vivid spring-green mix of pressed, house-made white cheese, spinach and green peas, which give it a natural sweetness. Along with a sensibly modest portion of the aromatic curry comes lots, lots more: yellow lentils stewed with tomatoes, spinach and exhilarating quantities of chilies; twin cups of soup, both the thick vegetable sambar and a clear, bracing tomato-and-tamarind broth; thin yogurt raita suffused with the fresh taste of onion and cucumber; photogenic rice pilaf. There's a big, brittle papadum to dip into one thing or crumble into another. There's even a sort of syrup-soaked doughnut ball (the lyrically named gulab jamun) for dessert.

But of all the items on a thali-style dinner, the most irresistible are the puffed, deep-fried wheat breads called pooris. These high, round domes are lighter, flakier cousins to sopapillas, and when you break them open, they emit dramatic clouds of steam. They're good alone. Or dipped into chutney. Or scooped into spicy dal. Or dunked into soup or raita. Pavani does other breads -- from a chewy, air-bubbled naan singed on the clay tandoori to a heavy, buttery, whole-wheat paratha that has an odd appeal -- but it's the pooris I long for.

Any of Pavani's vegetable or meat curries, as well as their tandoori dishes, can serve as the centerpiece of a thali meal. Chicken tikka masala, for instance, in a spicy tomato-cream bath that finishes with a chile kick. Or plain tandoori chicken in an unusually tart marinade, with lime wedges and sprightly pickled onions on the side. The chickpea dish called channa masala is sharp with cilantro, tart with tomato, right up front with its chile burn.

It's instructive to catalog the various species of hotness here, the sundry ways that chilies can act on the human palate. Even an unprepossessing mattar paneer of peas and white cheese has a slow-acting, laid back heat underscoring its mild sweetness and coriander-scented tomato cream. And one day the batter cloaking a plateful of the assorted vegetable fritters known as pakoras had its own spicy lift, making the melting slices of eggplant and skinny onion strings that much more interesting. (Another day's heap of crisp, airy spinach-leaf-and-onion pakoras was minus the chile factor, so be sure to ask for the superior hot version.) Fritter connoisseurs may also want to sample the whole jalapeno bajji, which literally brought tears to my eyes. I ate it right down to the lethal stem end.

What to avoid? An alarmingly red ginger chicken appetizer that seemed to have been hewn from a rubber bathmat. When you see the words "boneless chicken pieces in a batter" on this menu, I advise you to pass. My only additional caveats concern the unduly bright nighttime lighting that makes the unadorned gray and white dining room look stark and severe instead of sleek and inviting, the way it does in natural daylight, and occasional bouts of new restaurantitis. One night toward closing time, a sweetly sheepish waiter emerged from the kitchen and confessed that the tandoori chicken had burned -- could we wait for another batch? -- and that the onion kulcha had been incinerated thrice over -- would we take pooris in their place? Everything turned out fine, though, and the service, as usual at this eager-to-please establishment, could not have been nicer.

Pavani, 7320 Southwest Freeway, 272-8259.

Pavani: onion pakoras, $2.50; rava masala dosa, $3.95; palak matter paneer (thali style), $8.95; tandoori chicken $7.95.

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Alison Cook