Newly relocated to the most happening culinary corridor in town, stylishly inspired Indika has heat that's hard to beat
By Janice Schindeler
Rejoice. Thanks to a most strategic move from the netherland of an obscure Memorial location to the burgeoning lower Westheimerr strip, Anita Jaisinghani's Indika now has a showcase worthy of her stylish Indian-inspired food.
Gone is the cozy-cottage attitude. Mirroring the super-sonic arrival of the Asian sub continent into the 21st century, Indika has been transformed into a sleek, orange-and saffron-hued space complete with utilitarian track lights and a massive two-story wall of windows. The change of address has refocused attention on this exotic jewel. Late last year, no less authorities than USA Today and Food & Wine declared the Montrose transplant hip, hot and cool - or some superlative combination thereof.
And it turns out that hip, hot and cool pretty much sum up the food just right, as it does the interior design's blend of contemporary lines with traditional colors.
Redefining Indian food, the dishes of Indika are rooted in tradition while at the same time pushing the culinary edge. Managing partner and chef (and creative genius) Jaisinghani captures the flavors of her homeland, adds her own flair, bows to particular Texas demands, and blows you away with combinations.
The trick seems to be amazing subtlety. Even in the shrimp vindaloo, typically the hottest of curry dishes, the heat doesn't overpower. Instead, it enhances the myriad of flavors as they teasingly reveal themselves. A zap of mustard seed, the hum of toasted cumin, the whisper of cardamom. And underlying them all, there's that lingering, pulsating sense of heat.
Creativity reigns. Not one to be bound by tradition, Jaisinghani brings traditional street snacks of northern India to the table with the sweet, sour, salty and spicy chaat salads. Tender, fresh corn kernels, garbanzo beans and diced potatoes tossed with mint leaves and fantastically crunchy bits of papdi (semolina croutons similar to fried Chinese noodles) get drizzled with not one but four sauces - a tart tamarind chutney, a fresh verdant cilantro, a cooling yogurt and a pungent garlic sauce. The lot is crowned with glistening, ruby-like pomegranate seeds.
Indika's interpretation of the street-food snack pani poori is ethereal - fried and hollow puffed orbs of semolina, stuffed (through a tiny hole) with a filling of diced potatoes, black garbanzo beans and mung bean sprouts. Maitre d' Rustam "Rusty" Sanjana, who has been with Indika since the early days of the former Memorial spot, calls these beauts "Indian shooters." The idea is to pour a tad of tamarind sauce into the opening and pop the whole pani into your mouth as the flavors and textures explode.
Novel taste sensations continue in the appetizer of scallops - first marinated in mustard seeds, pickled lemons and saffron - then kissed after searing with the alluring amchur powder (dried green mango). The dish comes with a unique, very ethnic Gujarati tapioca pilaf and a refreshing salad of chopped fennel greens, fresh orange slices, dried channa daal (lentils) in an olive oil vinaigrette. Again the texture and flavor contrasts enthrall. Each component of the dish is a treat, but together they compliment and contrast in great harmony.
wonder continues with the delicate cardamom-infused broth base of the pigeon pea
dumpling soup - soothing, light and satisfying. On the other end of the
culinary-experience spectrum, the creamy spinach paneer has a spicy, lingering
If the entrees were not so enticing, I could roam about the appetizer, salad and soup side of the menu endlessly. It's a habit the staff respects - no pressure to order mains. But then I would miss the essence of Indika, as it rests in the details on the big plates.
Astute attention gets paid to every aspect of a dish, not just the main feature. The sweet potato and lentil puree that accompanies the lamb chops teems with ginger and mustard seeds, while the anise flavor of the braised fennel bulb charms with cumin and coriander. And the lamb chops, cooked to medium rare perfection, rest atop a tender lamb curry rich with fennel seeds and coconut milk.
There's a laudable, sustainable-food ideal under the surface. Jaisinghani uses organic unbleached flour for her naans and free-range chickens for the tikka masala and other poultry offerings. But oddly, she chooses not to tout these facts on her menu. "I offer what I would want to eat," she says with a shrug.
That simple explanation defines Indika. No big-name chef, no well connected public relations firm. On the sheer virtue of earnest effort, monumental chutzpah and exquisite personal taste, the demure Jaisinghani has secured heaps of national press. In 2002, a mere year after the original location opened, Gourmet magazine recognized Indika as one of the top restaurants in the United States. Las year, Zagat ranked Indika among the top five destination restaurants in Houston.
No marquee chef? So who does the cooking? In the beginning, at the original location, Jaisinghani tried a chef or two. But she knew what she wanted to accomplish, and the chefs did not always agree. So now, before each lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch, Jaisinghani works the kitchen, making sure the preparation of even the most seemingly insignificant dish - for example, the unassuming cucumber raita, a yogurt sauce enhanced here with apple, cucumber, finely chopped onion and a whisper of cumin, served gratis with warm naan - gets done to her satisfaction.
Throughout the evening she will work the hostess station, chit chat with customers and repeatedly check on the kitchen, all the while thinking about the next night's specials, modernizing flavors of her childhood into wonders for today. Like the flan-like dessert special of "creme caramel" with its allure of cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves and sauce of guava puree.
For Jaisinghani, Indika is a dream come true. As a youth in the Kashmir region, she wanted to study at a culinary school in Bombay (now Mumbai), but instead dutifully followed the paternally approved path to a graduate degree in bio chemistry. Years later, when the opportunity presented itself, she opened the original Indika on a shoestring. Her goal was to create a restaurant worthy of respect. Not a great Indian restaurant, per se, or a superb ethnic restaurant but simply an excellent restaurant. Now, initially bankrolled by her ex-husband and business partner, Ravi Jaisinghani (who also designed the establishment's sleek exterior), she has clearly reached her goal.
What to Wear Casual is best, but one might be tempted to hit Harwin and wrap oneself in a sari. Where to Sit Grab one of the three banquettes or, if the weather allows, head outside for an alfresco experience and a revealing view of nightlife on lower Westheimer. Parking Valet for sure. Who's in the Mix? You'll never know unless you spot them yourself, as the discreet Jaisinghani refuses to name her patrons. Check Out The bar - a lovely spot to grab a few appetizers, a guava-infused 'Madras Mojito' and a chat with the amiable bartender Mishaal Mahmud. What Wine? Ever so slightly sweet options are always good with highly seasoned food. But if you need more guidance than that, ask for Rusty. Best Reason to Save a Little Room After Dessert A cup of chai and cardamom cookies. Rating Five Stars.