I believe I gasped when the high-domed khasta kachori arrived at my table at Vishala , a trim little Gujarati restaurant at the back of the grocery store of the same name on Highway 6, down toward Sugar Land. In all my years of chasing down Indian food in Houston, I had never seen anything quite like it.
The brittle orb of pastry was frosted with cool yogurt and sprinkled with a manic confetti of bright green cilantro leaves and sev, the crunchy fried noodle bits.
When I punctured the fragile pastry shell, out tumbled a wealth of spicy garbanzo beans spiked with onion and tomato, with what seemed to be a coating of cayenne adhering to the inside of the pastry shell. Twining through this glorious mess were two chutneys: herbal green and sweet-tart tamarind.
It cost $3.99, and I could have called it lunch. Which was funny, because I had already eaten lunch from Vishala's $7.99 vegetarian buffet. The khasta kachori was a sudden whim, ordered from Vishala's ala carte list of chaat, the lively Indian street snacks.
Two lunches, or the equivalent thereof? No problem, not when it offered a chance for me to sample Indian dishes I'd never eaten before, and to rejoice that the era has finally passed when Houston's Indian restaurants had one-size-fits all menus of Greatest Hits from the North and Possibly the South.
Now, at a growing number of niche restaurants like Vishala, diners can sample cuisines from specific regions of the subcontinent.
Gujarat is an Indian state just south of Pakistan on the subcontinent's west coast; its border lies about 100 miles north of Mumbai. The population is mainly Hindu, so the cuisine is largely vegetarian. Madhur Jaffrey, the preeminent Indian food writer, has called it "the haute cuisine of vegetarianism," and Vishala, as modest a place as it is, affords a peek at the possibilities.
Vishala serves its vegetarian buffet in traditional thali form, so that diners fill small metal cups with various curries, broths and condiments, placing them on a round shiny platter. Customizing your thali meal is personal: it's OK to spoon some clove-laced rice right out on the platter, if you like, and to prop pickles or the various flatbreads from Vishala's wonderful roti service wherever you find room.
This isn't the epic pile-it-on, see-how-much-you-can eat experience many diners look for in an Indian lunch buffet. It's a more delicate mix-and-match operation, geared to savoring than wolfing. You can eat Western style, with utensils; or you can go traditional by scooping up food from the dishes with hanks of flatbread held in your right hand, the polite way to do it.
I made the amateur's mistake of crowding too many little dishes onto my platter, so that the bread-service lady had to fetch a separate paper plate from the kitchen for me. She was kind enough not to tsk-tsk, but it's Auntie Central here at Vishala, and I couldn't help but feel the same sort of abashment I once felt at my own mom's table when I had transgressed.
The Auntie vibe is part of Vishala's considerable charm, and the food really does taste homemade, as the two opinionated and food-obsessed Bengalis at my table confirmed. ("Opinionated and food-obsessed Bengalis" is sort of a double oxymoron, by the way, but that's a subject for another day.)
The dishes that grabbed me among the day's offering were the methi (or fenugreek) potatoes, cooked with fenugreek leaves that gave them an elusive herbal taste and dark greenness, with green chile for warmth; and khaman, a sort of deconstructed dhokla, the chick-pea-flour cakes that always remind me of spicy cornbread squares, slightly sweet and revved with black mustard seeds, cilantro and green chile. Here, the cakes were crumbled into a feathery-textured pile that was irresistible. I went back for seconds.
I went back for more mustard-zapped carrot pickle, too, the yellow mustard seeds clearing my sinuses as I ate a bit of the pickle to accent this dish or that. I admired the seasoning on a braised eggplant dish, although I might have enjoyed it more had the buffet's uneven steam-table arrangement kept it hotter.
I was interested to find a couple of sweet-tinged dishes, which are typical in Gujarati cuisine, including a soupy lentil dal and a tart-sweet-hot buttermilk-based broth called kadhi, which my friends instructed me was pronounced with a rolling "d," so that it comes out more like "karri." In both cases, the sweet element (probably from jaggery, the unrefined cane sugar that's the Indian equivalent of piloncillo) was nicely balanced against the savory.
The kadhi fascinated me, and I ended up dipping pieces of flatbread in it, although I could have just poured some of it onto my rice.
About those flatbreads, one of the highlights here: the basic roti, or wheat flour bread, is lovely stuff at Vishala, so tender and light it puts most flour tortillas to shame. Sturdier by far is the interesting millet bread that's finished on the grill; and a disk of whole wheat bread filled with a sweet dal filling, which to me read more like dessert.
There was a designated dessert on the buffet, in the form of pale dough balls (not fried, gulab-style) in a heavy sweet syrup, but by the time I had finished the last-minute khasta kachori extravaganza, I couldn't go there.
At the end, after an hour and a half of sampling and dissecting and animated talk, we passed through the door that separates the serene world of the restaurant from the jangly world of the grocery shop, and I picked up a box of instant khaman so that I could experiment with making my own at home.
I bought the dried coconut I'd need for the garnish, and a handful of unfamiliar-looking green chiles for seasoning. If only I hadn't forgotten by buy the essential black mustard seeds.
Next trip. Which is already a given.
Vishala Grocery & Restaurant : 9410 Highway 6 South, 281-498-6074.