Where: Houston, Texas, USA.
I very much doubt that anyone travels to Texas to look for Indian food, but given the pervasive curry drought that seems to have no end in sight in my home town of New Orleans (Seriously, guys? Can’t we get a gumbo curry or crawfish curry scene going? We can work this!) – my mind was firmly focussed on this task.
I was staying at Hotel Derek near Galleria Mall and as luck would have it, there was an Indian restaurant within walking distance. Given I didn’t have a car and this is Houston – where I’m guessing most people drive to collect their mail in the morning – I took this as a divine signal and reserved the hell out of a table for my first night in town.
I didn’t really know what to expect but my main thoughts were…well, how fancy could an Indian restaurant in Texas really be?
Pretty fancy, it turns out. Chef Kiran Verma is a globally-famous Indian food rock star, and her eponymous restaurant here in Houston is an assuredly-high class flagship. On their website, she says that she delivers “Indian hospitality, with French sophistication and American informality”, which is quite the line to walk.
Luckily for all concerned she walks it with apparent aplomb. The dining room shatters all my preconceptions about Texan interior design and though you can tell that well-to-do families are sitting down to dinner at tables they’ve possibly occupied every Friday night for a generation, the wait staff are very engaging, verging on cheeky. Which is fine with me.
As they’re taking mine and my dining companion’s coats, they’re already well into their local attractions tips. It doesn’t feel too rehearsed, a feeling that’s vindicated when it turns out our servers is actually on their very first shift at the restaurant. Their lack of nerves suggests there’s a welcoming lead-up to starting as staff here, that Chef Kiran makes you family before letting you loose on diners.
Anyway, they serve food here, so let’s get into that. The appetisers – obligatory (for me) popadoms and chutneys aside – are not standard curry house fare. Lobster bisque? Kale salad? Where’s my go to selection of onion bhajis and “meat” samosa? Well, Chef Kiran wants to broaden your horizons, which is a brave move considering. You know, being in Texas and everything.
Luckily, there’s a small plates ‘street food’ menu with pakora and pani poori and paneer kebab which we plunder with alacrity, complemented with a couple of cocktails that seemed to fit: a ginger margarita and a Karma Sutra, which is plied with rum and sounds way classier than a Sex on the Beach, even though they’re both pretty carnal.
Onto mains, and we’re in more familiar territory (for me), despite some local turns. Bison kofta? I guess you can take the Indian food into Texas as long as you put the Texas into the Indian food. I can’t not have a lamb rhogan josh – it’s been almost a year, after all – so I slavishly go for that. My friend lands on the chick jalferezi and we pile on the additions of palak paneer (spinach and cheese) and plain and stuffed naan (you can choose from a multitude of veggie stuffings).
I always find ordering wine with Indian food a challenge (due to my own incompetence in this arena) but luckily our rookie server hits a home run by cutting a swathe through the (award winning) 300+ label wine list and brings us a perfectly-suited Malbec.
We’re digging, with full-bellied resistance, into the dessert when Chef Kiran sidles up to our table and plonks herself down. She doesn’t launch into her life story, instead asking us about our lives, chatting away as if she wasn’t neck deep into Friday night service. We probe her a little and she tells us about moving to the US 40 years previously, cooking for her friends as a way of training and eventually opening up her own place.
She takes a spoon to our shared sorbet and we do a shot of liqueur with her before she heads back to oversee her kitchen. She’s humble and utterly charming, which is weird for a successful chef, most of the ones I’ve met being intimidatingly surly and keen to hoof it back to the kitchen.
I ask her what the measure of her success is – awards, respect from her peers? “It’s the families that come back here. Watching their children growing up and seeing them make reservations of their own. That’s what makes me happy.”
And with that, she’s gone. Back to overseeing happiness.