It’s clear chef Sunil Srivastava has fond memories of his first eatery. “Great W’Kana was our baby. It was the first love for me in opening a restaurant,” he told me after I visited his new Verandah Progressive Indian Cuisine for dinner. “We didn’t want to close it down.”
But the revered Stafford-area restaurant fell victim to a landlord who declined to renew the lease. Srivastava moved the café to the Energy Corridor, where it replaced his fast-casual concept W’Kana Express, but closed the restaurant for good once he secured an Inner Loop space. In February he and his wife, Anupama, started a new chapter with Verandah, located inside the Kirby Collection in River Oaks. Decked out with a white-marble bar, modern furniture, glass walls, and a large, colorful mandala painting, it’s a beautiful space.
The menu highlights the country’s diversity and regional variety. “It’s the forgotten cuisine of India,” says Srivastava. “It’s not been given the due respect that it should be given.”
Some perhaps-unexpected choices include lobster tail, lamb shanks, and—my favorite—succulent, cardamom-spiced, braised, and smoked rabbit, topped with a fragrant korma sauce and served over biryani with rainbow carrots on a lovely wooden platter. The dish, khargosh ki saounth, is inspired by Srivastava’s childhood in the hunting-happy Indian state of Rajasthan, near the Pakistani border.
Among other standouts, there’s the delicious subzi ka saalan, popular among the Hyderabadis of southern India, a numbingly spicy vegetable curry with cauliflower, carrot, and spinach that is cooked for 12-plus hours. Elsewhere a dish of marinated roast salmon, cooked in a tangy-sweet mustard sauce with a hint of spice, makes for a nice light option. While it’s a fish you won’t find in India, Srivastava says it’s the perfect stand-in for the popular whitefish called rawas.
Biryani gets an unusual treatment at Verandah. It looks like a pot pie, with the earthy, rich, aromatic rice hiding under a browned crust along with your protein of choice—I loved the tender goat.
Some of the dishes here are glammed up to match the fine-dining experience of a River Oaks evening. Consider the tandoori appetizer platter, which comes with tender, juicy Peshawari chicken tikka; peppery seekh kebabs made with spiced ground lamb; and golden sautéed prawns, or lassoni jheenga. The trio of offerings is cooked over charcoal and presented in a covered dish that releases smoke when the lid is lifted. There was more smoke under the dome than in the meats the day I tried it, but the dish was still terrific.
There are aspects of the Verandah experience that I found didn’t live up to the consistently excellent cuisine or fancy digs. The beverage program is hit-or-miss. I enjoyed the mirchi mumtaz, a spicy, not overly sweet vodka cocktail, but the masala chai bourbon left me thinking those ingredients should never mix. And while the wine list is fine if unadventurous, I recommend ordering a Singha. The beer will pair well with whatever you order.
The service can be either extremely attentive or near-absent. On my first visit, nearly 25 minutes passed after the table was cleared before I had the opportunity to ask for a check; another time, too, the wait was long, although closer to 15 minutes. As the place continues to gain its rhythm, such issues will no doubt be fixed.
The Srivastavas are serving some of the finest Indian food in town, and their presence is vital to the local culinary scene. It’s wonderful to have them back.
If you’re planning to visit Hu’s Cooking, whether for lunch or dinner, I suggest arriving early. During each of my visits, the dining room filled up to capacity before lines formed outside, full of diners happy to wait for the restaurant’s contemporary Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine, and for good reason: This is one of the finest dining experiences in Houston.
Owner John Hu assisted with the opening of Cooking Girl in the Med Center before deciding to open his own spot, just a block away, in March of last year—a hip, minimalist space outfitted with blond-wood tables, contemporary lighting, and Chinese murals. Hu enlisted chef Wang Yu to run the kitchen, where he deftly produces outstanding takes on traditional dishes, alongside superb originals that are on their way to becoming local classics.
Less adventurous diners will love the chef’s modern iteration of orange chicken, which is lightly crispy, with preserved orange peel adding brightness, but not bitterness. The supple pork dumplings are also a winner, as are the simple, golden fried noodles.
The menu spotlights customary Taiwanese “three-cup” dishes, traditionally made with a cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine. The gently fried three-cup tofu, with garlic, Thai chiles, and basil leaves, is outstanding.
Fresh herbs are front and center throughout Chef Yu’s food. The show-stopping, brilliantly spicy shabu-shabu lamb is packed with large spearmint leaves that add color and zip. Elsewhere chopped cilantro lends freshness to an appetizer of black agaric mushroom slices with red chiles.
The deep menu offers many more stunners, such as the pitch-perfect Sichuan specialty of mapo tofu, whose peppery oil dances on the tongue, and the pork liver with pickled peppers, its rich pâté bathing in red chile oil with garlic slices, enoki mushrooms, and edamame.
I recommend exploring the chef’s specials section of the menu, which features the kinds of dishes you can’t find anywhere else. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the sweet chopped duck legs, caked in sugar and not at all crispy, but I couldn’t stop eating them. I also fell hard for the tender beef with garlic sauce and chopped scallions served alongside pillow-soft steamed buns.
On the beverage front, the menu offers a tasty tropical drink of mango, pineapple, and orange juices, called Hu’s Golden Juice. You can bring your own wine as well, and while I didn’t notice bottles on many tables, the scene was lively all the same. I guess everyone was excited to be enjoying such insanely good food.