It's no secret that to most non-vegetarians, the suggestion of a filling meatless feast is little more than a cruel joke. Rabbit food, yes. Diet fodder, sure. Celebratory meal? Hell to the no.
It's not her goal to create vegetarians, but it's likely Kiran Verma will win converts to at least sometimes skipping the meat with her new sadhya tasting menu. Her restaurant, Kiran's, debuted the $65, eight-course repast on May 4, a flesh-free counterpart to the luxe market-price lobster tasting, which includes a tandoori lobster tail with paneer ravioli.
But believe it or not, the vegetarian menu is just as worthy of a special occasion. The menu is a collaboration between Verma, executive sous-chef Dominick Lee and South Indian sous-chef Kanan Narayanan. Lee says that he and Verma became obsessed with Narayanan's native flavors, but says that realistically, their clientele isn't ready for the wallop much of it packs. "Our concept is very refined, very flavorful," he says.
Sadhya is a feast served on banana leaves, primarily in the South Indian state of Kerala. Not surprisingly, it's a far more rustic affair than what one expects of dining in Kiran's elegant dining room. There, rather than spooning food directly onto the banana leaf to be eaten with one's hands, polished plates are placed atop a leaf that serves as a charger—and a reminder of the theme.
The meal begins with a trio of pickles: tangy okra, spicy heirloom carrots, and homemade paneer. Few cheeses can be pickled, but as Lee notes, paneer's lack of rennet prevents it from melting in a bath of hot vinegar. Rasam, a sweet-and-sour tamarind-based soup is thicker at Kiran's than at other Houston restaurants, and served with chickpea battered and fried kale, it's even more satisfying.
A tiny flour bowl filled with moist lentil dumplings, a chaat dish called raj katori, enlivened with cashews, yogurt and tamarind and mint chutneys, is a standout. Three courses are each centered around a pancake. The dosa, made with fermented rice flour, is served with a thick sambar stew, but also tomato and coconut chutneys. Besan ka chilla is a round of gram flour accompanied by a spicy, sticky mango pickle and sweet, spiced yogurt. A corn pancake filled with tiny chunks of onion is used to scoop up sarson ka saag, a stew of mustard greens, chard, collards and spinach, along with an unlikely side of sweet jaggery butter.
Sugar fans double their pleasure. A cumin-spiked watermelon-prosecco granita serves as the intermezzo. Dessert is the swarg, which Lee says is Hindi for "heaven." It's not an inaccurate description. Mild lime cream in an egg-shaped glass serves as a base for raspberry-ginger sorbet and a shower of crunchy crumbled coconut. Berries and a sprig of mint dot the soft concoction.
Even the most avowedly beef-eating Texan is unlikely to leave Kiran's sadhya meal anything but stuffed and in a glowing state of vegetarian swarg.