Can an Indian restaurant serve Houston's best food?
In my annual top 10 list, I ranked Indika #1.
My brother thought the choice was strange. He likes Indika. But he admitted a prejudice -- the assumption that the best restaurant in town will serve food that is French, Italian, or modern American.
He didn't argue this prejudice is correct. He just admitted he has it.
He is not alone. In the West, we are taught to think that that the world's best cuisine is French. Italian is second (unless you ask an Italian). I thought like that for years, but am beginning to challenge it. Other cultures have cooking traditions that are just as rich, diverse, and sophisticated. Consider China, India, Peru.
It is not the tradition a restaurant chooses that makes it great. It is what the restaurant does with that tradition.
Creating a new language
A handful of Houston's great restaurants borrow from a particular tradition, but create their own unique language outside of it. The list includes:
Cafe Annie - Robert Del Grande developed a unique style of Franco/Southwestern cuisine unlike any other restaurant in the Southwest. Cafe Annie's sauces and preparations are distinctly Cafe Annie.
Hugo's - Hugo Ortega has created a style of Mexican cuisine that is different from Mexican food anywhere else.
Feast - Although it borrows from British pub food and the head-to-tail movement, Feast is developing a food language of its own.
These restaurants all have a unique style. Uniqueness alone will not make a restaurant great. But it is particularly impressive when a restaurant makes great food that is also wholly unique.
Most Indian restaurants in America fall within one of two or three styles. Whether your are in Houston or Boston, you can get the same dish -- prepared almost the same -- from one restaurant to the next.
In contrast, Indika's dishes are one of a kind. It makes sense that Indika's chef, Anita Jaisinghani, once worked at Cafe Annie. She does the same thing to Indian food that Del Grande did to Southwestern food at Cafe Annie -- turning it into a uniquely personal creation of the highest quality.
Below are some photos from our visit to Indika last Saturday. The dishes are roasted stuffed Karella (bitter gourd), mixed green salad with potato goat cheese cakes, uttappam with spiced calamari and coconut chutney, and the vegetarian plate (7 items including goat cheese fritters, pickled eggplant, cucumber salad, curried mushrooms, pasta in soup, and vegetarian kofta in sauce).
My western food vocabulary is inadequate to describe Indika's food. I don't know all these flavors, ingredients, and spices. I can only say that every dish was alive with flavors and contrasting textures. It was like a party in my mouth.
One complaint: Indika's menu does not seem to change much. It is one thing to make fantastic, unique dishes. It is something else to come up with new ones every night.