The world has many great culinary traditions. But few stand out quite like the spice-laden aromas of India and the strictly codified techniques of France. Sheel Joshi was lucky enough to be born into both, courtesy of a Punjabi father and a French mother. He grew up in picturesque Dorset on the southwestern coast of England. But he made his name as a chef and restaurateur in Los Angeles.
In 2000, the Los Angeles Times's Barbara Hansen reviewed Joshi's restaurant, Surya, in a piece aptly entitled "Divinely Different." Due to rising rents, Joshi closed Surya in 2009. But L.A.'s loss is Houston's gain. The restaurant, named for the Hindu sun god, rose again at 700 Durham late last month.
Trappings of Surya India's previous life decorate the walls—a Michelin guide recommendation here, a signed photo from Tina Turner there. Above the bar's collection of wines and liquors, Joshi displays both English and Indian flags.
The menu is undeniably upscale and not necessarily directed at Indians. Samosa chaat is referred to as "Surya Special" on the menu, a likely concession to guests not familiar with the cuisine. At lunch, it costs $10, roughly twice what it would in the Mahatma Gandhi District. But one bite and even the cheapest diner won't mind. It's just that full of flavor—and the textural interplay of crackling samosa skins filled with potato beneath a heavily spiced pile of chickpeas showered in yogurt and cilantro.
Joshi says that he's kept the menu simple for his Houston debut. Some of his more ambitious L.A. dishes such as tandoori lobster aren't yet available, though at dinnertime, he is serving tandoori Chilean seabass and a few prawn dishes.
Lunch, however, sticks to the true basics. The paneer is slippery and soft with just a hint of bounce in the rich saag paneer that's covered with matchsticks of fresh ginger for extra pop. Chicken tikka is juicy with the edges of its yogurt marinade crisped and lightly charred in the tandoor. Both come with pea-speckled basmati rice and chewy naan, ready to be dipped in sauce or in the mint or tamarind chutneys brought out at the start of the meal.
But talking with my Punjabi dining companion inspired Joshi to show us some of what might still be coming. After a brief disappearance in the kitchen, he appeared with a golden plate of kadhi pakora. The sunny yellow yogurt gravy speckled with mustard seeds was one of my friend's childhood favorites, it turned out. The onions coated in gram flour were fried perfectly, she declared between hearty dips of naan into sauce.
A chef who can touch the heart with comfort food and update a dish with a modern edge is a chef we're happy to welcome to Houston. Especially when he's been reared on two of our favorite cuisines.