Restaurant Review

Two Houston Favorites Reinvent Themselves

With new digs, new menus—and one new name—Kiran's and Alice Blue are reborn better than ever.

By Scott Vogel December 29, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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The sea bass at Kiran's is a revelation.

Image: Jenn Duncan

"Well, this is not what I was expecting at all,” said a woman who’d agreed to lead us on an excursion to Kiran’s new digs on a recent Saturday evening. Our guide gave the glass door a cruel yank as she entered, her face filled with fury and longing for the Kiran’s of old. “It’s loud, it’s bright, it’s got pizza.”

“It’s also not Kiran’s,” announced another diner in our group, pointing out that we four had instead walked into MidiCi. A self-described “Neapolitan Pizza Company,” the eatery smelled delectable enough, but had little to offer in the way of white tablecloth, northern Indian fusion. Embarrassed, our leader exited as quickly as she’d entered, slinking down the sidewalk and leading us to our second portal of the evening, two heavy, hammered-brass doors adorned with Hindi script. Her sigh was audible when they resisted her yanking, and again when the doors finally opened—only with the help of her companions—onto not bright chaos but soft-lit gentility. Our companion sighed a third time, relieved to have rediscovered a lost world of gastronomic refinement, a world where one still ate out with elegance, a world before pizza.

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You'll want to start with the pani poori.

Image: Jenn Duncan

It was Kiran Verma herself, chef and owner of the eponymous establishment, who’d mastered the cuisines of northern India years before at her first restaurant in Westchase, and later at a shuttered restaurant she’d repurposed into Kiran’s on Westheimer, an eatery that proved popular enough for Verma to itch for more, an itch that only grew after Kiran’s lost its lease last year. Why not open a bigger place, she wondered, with a kitchen she didn’t inherit but designed herself, with a sleek dedicated bar area and updated dining room all her own? Why indeed. Thus did Verma pull up stakes, moving a couple of miles south into a new mixed-use development on Richmond Avenue earlier this year. The transition did not happen overnight, however. For nine agonizing months, Houston lived without a Kiran’s.

“Well, that’s more like it,” said our leader, having fully recovered from MidiCi-induced trauma. She gazed approvingly at Kiran’s bar area, with its long, communal table flanked by rows of pumpkin-colored stools. A tall wine wall completely separated the bar from the main dining area, although the noise level emanating from the latter conjured images of a room that was at most half-full. It wasn’t until our hostess wound us through the large, 18-foot-ceilinged dining room—leading us past rust-colored banquettes backed by floor-to-ceiling windows, and soaring wooden panels inlaid with mother of pearl—to the only empty table in the place, that we began to appreciate the thrust and magnitude of Verma’s achievement in her new home. Producing consistently great meals had apparently not been enough for her. She wanted to master the fine-dining experience too, and together with San Francisco–based design firm Gensler, that’s exactly what she did, scripting what is indisputably the loveliest high-end eating experience in town.

Even as many of the city’s upscale restaurants have apparently concluded that high prices and high decibel levels are an inseparable pair, Kiran’s stubbornly remains a place to linger, to revisit the lost art of conversing with one’s dinner companions at normal volume, to enjoy those conversations uninterrupted by needlessly obtrusive wait staffs. Looking around, relief and appreciation for Verma’s considerate ethos seemed written on every face in the dining room.

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Kiran's new digs include a sleek bar.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Unlike Kiran’s 1.0, the new restaurant boasts a lunch service and even a happy hour menu, but dinner service remains the star of the show. From the moment you toast your meal’s beginning with pani poori, delicate cups of pastry into which a life-giving brew of potatoes and tamarind and mint is poured, there’s an undeniable sense of moment to the evening. And it’s a great lead-in to Kiran’s wonderful starters, from the Delhi chaat snacks, fried crisp and crackling hard, to the perfectly seasoned lamb in the samosas, to an intriguing amalgamation of crab cakes and vindaloo. 

In choosing the seasonings for these dishes and others on her capacious menu, Verma has been clever, perhaps even shrewd, and I suspect that her flavor profiles will strike some as crowd-pleasing Indian lite. But even her detractors would surely admire Kiran’s high-quality produce and meats, not to mention the intricate mise-en-scene of her entrées. A cake of wild mushroom biryani and a dollop of mango chutney probably did not expect to find themselves on the same plate as Chilean sea bass, but their presence helped transform an oft-served fish into a revelation. The $40 vegetarian feast, meanwhile, in which diners make four selections from a menu of 21 options, necessitates so many difficult decisions it probably deserves a review of its own. Nevertheless, here too the sum is usually greater than the parts, although the parts—the vegetable korma bathed in an almond and cashew sauce, the mélange of cheese, cream and tomatoes in the paneer makhni, the accompanying saffron rice and tangy cucumber dip—are nothing to sneeze at either.

Longtime fans of Kiran’s will find plenty of new things to love, from the India-inspired cocktail list (don’t miss the rose martini), to an afternoon tea service on Fridays and Saturdays. But all the dishes that made Kiran’s an institution in this town remain proudly in evidence—the tandoori and butter chicken, the many biryanis, the endless variations on naan and malabari paratha. I am happy to report that while all are as good as ever, they taste even better now, served as they are in a space that encourages appreciation, one in which Verma’s food competes with nothing for your attention.

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Cavatelli with smoked butter and burrata at Alice Blue

Image: Jenn Duncan

When Claire Smith opened Shade on W. 19 St. in the Heights in 2003, the street was sleepy, food options were few, and quaint little bungalows in the ’hood weren’t going for a half-mill. And even as things changed around it, Shade remained a beloved constant, not least because of its quasi-legendary shrimp and grits. As Smith was no doubt aware, however, Houston is not a city of beloved constants. Houston is in fact where such constants go to die. Thus did Smith, like Verma, go on her own journey of discovery, albeit a brief one.

Her new establishment, Alice Blue, is not trying to be true to her beginnings or trade on her past. Indeed, the main thing Alice Blue shares with Shade is its address. The Europe-style bistro is something of a rejection of the downhome Southern spot that preceded it, the food and dining experiences are all its own, and the shrimp and grits are crustacean non grata.

It’s not as if the space itself has been overhauled. Other than the addition of color—a shade of blue favored by Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, hence the name—the changes are subtle, and yet the room has a warmer feel than Shade exuded. It’s the sort of place you might go for a fancy lunch one day, an unfancy dinner the next, and walk away equally satisfied on both occasions. 

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You can't go wrong with the New York strip or the squash fritters at Alice Blue.

Image: Jenn Duncan

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Worth a trip in itself: Alice Blue's olive oil cake

Image: Jenn Duncan

That’s especially likely if you opt for the squash fritters appetizer, available both day and night. The crunchy, lightly fried cucurbit is meltingly delicious on its own, and still more so when dipped in the accompanying yogurt spiced with sumac and cilantro. Lunchtime also features a sturdy and satisfying Cobb salad, especially when fortified by the optional roast chicken.

And I’ve newfound respect for the humble BLT after trying Alice Blue’s version, even if the star of the show was neither the B, the L nor the T, but their housing—thick planks of seeded bread baked on the premises—and the finely sliced house-made potato chips that dressed the plate.

Dinnertime brought a soul-stirring bouillabaisse with snapper, clams, shrimp, and yet another heavenly plank of bread to sop it all up with. The New York strip was no disappointment either, its meat tender, perfectly pink, and attractively plated with tiny globes of potatoes and béarnaise sauce. Those in the mood for lighter fare, meanwhile, might enjoy the cavatelli with smoked butter and burrata, although there was nothing impressive about the other fish entrée I tried, a citrus-soaked salmon that seemed better suited for Jet Blue than Alice Blue.

Luckily, there was still more fun to be had. I am not in the habit of recommending restaurant desserts, but there are at least two at Alice Blue that are almost worth a trip by themselves. They are, in no particular order, the olive oil cake and salted chocolate mousse. The former comes generously soaked in fig caramel, the latter arrives unadorned, topped simply with whipped cream. Never underestimate the power of mousse and cream, however, especially when expertly concocted, as in the present case. Thanks to Alice Blue’s efforts, there isn’t a more heavenly spoonful in town.

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