The dining room at Kiran's.

Image: Mai Pham

Confession: I’ve always been shy about eating Indian food. My palate for spice is definitely weak, and as a self-professed spice wimp, Indian food is just daunting. The last time I made a bonafide attempt to have a good sit-down Indian meal, sampling something as basic as Indian samosas and a medium-spiced curry, my body couldn’t process it, and my worst fears were realized: I was sick for about a week. That’s gonna make you gun shy, which is why it took me three more years to take the plunge, going out of my comfort zone for a date night meal at Kiran’s.

4100 Westheimer Rd.

I’ve sampled chef Kiran Verma’s cooking before. I was one of the judges the year she won the creative category at the annual Caesar Salad competition hosted by the Food & Beverage Association. Her Indian take on the Caesar salad still stands out in my mind as one of the best versions of outside-of-the-box chicken caesar salad I’ve had to date. Utilizing cashews, raisins, and Indian spiced-chicken breast, the chopped romaine salad was served in crisped parmesan baskets and the result was undeniably delicious, different, beautifully presented, and—obviously—memorable. I recently tasted her Indian riff on lobster bisque topped with freshly shaved black truffle at the Truffle Chef of the Year competition. I also recall with vivid clarity the mango mousse she served some four years ago at the Sugar Land Wine & Food Grand Tasting event, but it wan’t until last week that I actually visited Kiran’s, feeling a bit wobbly and unsure, like a baby taking first steps.

Turns out, there was nothing to be afraid of. In fact, I feel like I’ve been missing out on a Houston treasure because of my admittedly sissy aversion to strongly spiced Indian cuisine. I loved the kind of grand, upscale, somewhat colonial feel of the stately main dining room, with its dark polished woods and maroon colored drapes set against tastefully selected framed sketches, sculptures, and paintings. Servers dressed in crisped white shirts and buttoned-up black vests added to ambiance, providing some of the best service I’ve experienced in Houston—courteous and knowledgeable, extremely attentive but not intrusive.

An order of pani poori.

Image: Mai Pham

On the food front, my first impression couldn’t have been more positive thanks to Kiran’s excellent papadum (thin chickpea crackers). Like an version of Indian chips and salsa, it’s the first thing that is served, and it immediately set the tone for the whole evening. Crispy and savory (but not spicy in the least) they are served in a basket two small saucers of chutney (tamarind and mint) for dipping. It was all I could do to stop eating them.

You can’t visit an Indian restaurant, of course, without ordering some naan bread. The version we tried was soft and pliant, and filled with goat cheese and rosemary, something of a novelty for me. That particular filling was suggested to us as one of the house favorites, but there’s a long list of other fillings to choose from such as curried potatoes, shredded meats, chutneys, and more.

My own meal was rather unadventurous (baby steps, folks!), but delicious all the same. I tried that same lobster bisque topped with a bit of black truffle and Indian spiced oil, a very good, safe choice any day. My companion’s trio of soups—a corn chowder, lentil soup, and tomato cream—each one progressively more spiced, was absolutely lovely (I loved the corn chowder, while he preferred the lentil), presented in white porcelain cups that were beautiful and modern in design, something you might find at the MoMA gift shop.

Pani poori gets its close-up.

Image: Mai Pham

For my appetizer, I had a simple round breaded crab cake filled to the brim with crab, and swathed in a crispy bread crumb shell reminiscent of a Spanish croquette. My companion had the Broken Arrow Ranch quail stuffed with figs, wild mushrooms, and pine nuts and topped with a quail egg. He quickly pronounced it as “probably the best quail” he’d had in Houston. Moist and bursting with flavor and texture, the richly spiced glaze mixed with the chutney and stuffing proved exemplary.

We followed this with an order of pani poori—something we added to our order along the way because the table next to us seemed to enjoy it so much—and I’m so glad that we did. This was the highlight among the many dishes we tried, a type of street food made of small, thin, two-inch fried cups filled with a mix of mung bean sprouts and fresh pomegranate seeds. The pani poori comes with a small urn filled with spiced tamarind water, which you pour into the cups before plopping each one in your mouth. If it sounds fun, that’s because it was. The first bite is crisp, followed by a gush of liquid and a chewy center—an explosion of texture flooded with vivid, intense flavors.

In the end, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go full-bore Indian spice and like it, but I do know this: I’ll happily step out of my comfort zone again for a taste of chef Kiran’s delicious Indian cuisine. I hear they have a fantastic happy hour, too, so that’ll be next up on my agenda.


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