Nalli nihari, or lamb shank with saffron cauliflower risotto and pepper gremolata.

Image: Julie Soefer

Walking into Musaafer is like shedding the present and entering a circa-early 18th century Indian palace. There are wooden colonnades and a host of arches, cozy velvet-dressed nooks in intimate lounges, hand-cut mirror walls, solid-marble everything, and cabana sheets fluttering in the breeze. Musaafer is both wide open and a maze of rooms, some intensely dark, others lily white or sparkling like jewels.

I admit that it's nice, even for an hour, to drift into this different world set inside an Indian restaurant now open in the Galleria's VI wing. Of course, we're living in a moment where leaving the present day may feel irresponsible, and where dining inside a restaurant is rife with challenges. 

Musaafer opened just a few weeks ago, and then closed quickly because an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. After sanitizing the restaurant and receiving an all-clear through fully negative employee tests, Musaafer re-opened Friday. It will, like every other restaurant in America, live in this present moment and have to deal with the obstacles, like we all do when stepping inside a public space. But, be prepared and careful, stay distant and safe, and the time that you're in this palatial, 10,000-square-foot labyrinth will be a necessary, temporary getaway.

You may sit in Musaafer's Traveler's Room that offers a window into the pastry kitchen and showcases both a community table and a 14-foot-tall statue. Or you may be seating inside the Agnan, a courtyard-style dining room with checkerboard floor. Or maybe you'll be outside on the balcony-set lounge with its own bar. Regardless of where you're seated, see if you can get a little tour around the building.

The Sheesh Mahal inside Musaafer.

Image: Julie Soefer

The menu offers its own tour that highlights the distinct spices that define Indian cuisine, through both familiar dishes and other more unique plates.

For example, an impressive lamb shank makes sense at a gourmet Indian restaurant, towering over saffron cauliflower risotto and pepper gremolata. You may detect a very minor hint of smokiness in the bite. Another more traditional dish is the rich dal makhani, in which lentils are cooked for 72 hours with tomato and smoked chili. It might remind you of another deeply comforting staple of Houston and Texas cuisine. 

But then there's a starter of ceviche, and it may surprise you how curry and mango puree bring out the tender, fresh scallops. It seems executive chef Mayank Istwal, who was brought to America by Musaafer's owners Mithu and Shammi Malik, has plenty more tricks up his sleeve.

The same goes for pastry chef Ruchit Harnej and bar manager Himanshu Desai. I won't spoil it, but I will say there's a woodland scene and an ash-scented (in a good way) whiskey drink in your future.

It remains to be seen just how Musaafer will fare in this current climate, especially as no restaurant is safe from COVID-19. But if you need a moment to escape and remember just how wild and often wondrous a dining experience can get, here's a new, opulent place ready to remind you.

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