Thursday, November 13, 2014

Yaal Tiffins, South Indian Cuisine

10928 Westheimer (faces Lakeside Estate Drive)

Traditional South Indian and Sri Lankan Home-Style Cooking is what the menu proclaims.  Most of the week South Indian cuisine is featured but there are a couple of special meals each week highlighting Sri Lankan cuisine.  Is this a first for Houston?  It's a first for me anyway.

I went on a weekday for lunch where the lunch menu gives you a choice of a Veg. Thali (sic) for $6.99 or a Non Veg. Thali for a buck more.  The Non Veg. Thali offers a choice of chicken or goat.  I went for the Veg. Thali which also came with a choice of Masala Thosai or Naan and Paneer.

Across the top of the thali are dahi, kheer with paper thin sliced almonds, chutney and dahl, at 2 o'clock is a cabbage, carrot and pea poriyal (stir-fry); there are two pakoras, sambar and an onion curry.  This was some of the most mildly spiced Indian cuisine I think I've ever encountered.  The onion curry was the spiciest; I did find a dark red chilli in the chutney and eagerly bit into it but apparently all the seeds had been removed.  Nevertheless I especially enjoyed the sambar, kheer and poriyal.

A table card announced the Saturday lunch special which is a Sri Lankan Feast served on a banana leaf for just $7.99/$8.99.  I already knew about that from online reviews and this visit was no more than a preview:  I was mostly interested in sampling Sri Lankan cuisine and I made it a point to be there the next Saturday for my first taste.

I had the restaurant all to myself when I arrived, luckily, as one of the staff took the time to explain all the dishes that would be served and even a bit about how some of them are prepared.  I didn't witness any of the later patrons (and the place was full by the time I left) get such attention, but then, many of them were probably expats.

The banana leaf turned out to be real this time and the feast started with a cup of Neer Moru, the Sri Lankan version of buttermilk, with minced onion, ginger and curry leaf.  It was a very cooling, refreshing variation on the spicier Indian buttermilks I've had.

Then came the apps and a serving of sambol, the Sri Lankan hot sauce with a paste-like consistency.  The apps were fried chickpea fritters.

Next came puttu, wedges of Sri Lankan omelet with onion and curry leaf and a cup of rasam.   I've heard of puttu before.  An Indian correspondent has written that she loves them and always looks forward to them when she visits Kerala and I have seen the cylinders used to steam them in the housewares sections of the Indian supermarkets in Stafford but I've never encountered them on a menu.  In Kerala they are usually made with rice and coconut but here they are made with wheat flour and coconut.  This was like a steamed, moist muffin and I can see why they're a popular breakfast food.

By this time I was ready for a second helping of the sambol which I was eating like a side rather than a condiment.   The restaurant was filling up and servers with their stainless buckets were passing by, doling out portions.  The meal is served in stages and there was never a time to get a 'big picture' of the whole meal but the next several offerings came in quick succession.

An appalam and a dahl curry were brought by.  The appalam is like the palappam of Kerala, a fermented crepe that is the bread served instead of naan.  I have enjoyed the dahls here; they are more simply seasoned than many it seems to me, allowing the pulse's flavors to shine through.

I had opted for the Non-Veg. Feast this time and the main course was a chicken kulambu or prettal, a curry, that was my favorite dish of the entire meal.  I'm not sure what the difference is between a kulambu or prettal or if those are interchangeable terms.  There was also a Sri Lankan Veg. Varai or Fry, with potatoes, a dry curry like the fries of Kerala.  I now want to learn how to make both the potatoes and the chicken curry.  There was another curry but I can't remember what was in it - it didn't make much of an impression on me.

According to the table card and the server's explanation, there was supposed to be a salad course before the chicken curry but I never received that.  Perhaps as compensation I did get a complimentary serving of the main dish for the veg. version of the feast, a pumpkin curry.  I had passed on the Veg. Feast when the server had mentioned the pumpkin curry as I am already just about pumpkin-ed out for this year, but this would have made a very satisfactory entree.  Unfortunately I neglected to take a picture of it.

The meal also included portions of steaming, puffy, Sri Lankan Red Rice and a serving of basmati rice.

If  the spice levels of Sri Lankan cuisine are disappointing to you, just grab a handful of these when they're offered.  This is a Buttermilk Chilli.  As I recall I was told the chillis are drizzled with buttermilk then dried in the sun before being fried.  I got this with a small portion of a mild mango pickle.

Then the meal ended simply with yogurt with treacle.

Portions are unlimited for this feast.  Many patrons were taking multiple portions of some of the dishes.  I asked for slightly larger portions of some items when they were originally served but the only ones I got seconds on were the sambol and the chicken.   I left very satisfied.

Service dragged a bit as the restaurant got very crowded.  Some dishes were at room temp, which is not ideal to me but not a big issue.  I imagine with a rather small kitchen it's difficult to juggle so many different items and keep them all warm, perhaps.

Next up for me will be a visit on a Thursday evening for the Sri Lanka/Kerala Dinner.

Urban Spoon has reviews dated in 2012 but YELP says the restaurant is three months old and that was confirmed by the owner.  Maybe an earlier incarnation folded, I don't know but I had never heard of this place until recently.

A flyer picked up the first week of November, 2014.  Prices, dishes and hours may vary at the restaurant.  The overwhelming majority of the menu is devoted to South Indian cuisine; a small selection of Sri Lankan dishes is available a la carte as I understand it Thursday through Sunday.   The restaurant is right across the side street from the original location of Cafe Pita +.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Myth Kafe

1730 Jefferson

New owners took over the Greek Myth Cafe at this location at the end of August and changed the name, hours of operation and maybe some of the menu.  It was all news to me, literally, as I had never even heard of the previous restaurant.

Greek salad was first up for me, with bell peppers instead of pepperoncini (I missed them); the tomatoes, despite their color, were tasteless but the almost cream cheese-like feta and generous complement of kalamata olives made this a treat.   This was the small size but it was enough for me; I hadn't had much of a appetite and I proceeded straight to dessert. 

Actually, it was the picture online of home-made Greek yogurt with walnuts and honey that had drawn me here more than anything but the yogurt and honey wasn't available so I 'settled' for Ekmek or Ekmek Kantaife.  Similar to kunaife, this is vermicelli (shredded wheat) drenched with syrup, topped with a custard and crushed pistachios.  The unique flavoring comes from the resin of the mastic tree which grows only on the Greek island of Chios.

Gyros here are made with beef.  When they put lamb in a pita, as in this sandwich, they call it - ta-da - Lamb in a Pita.  Lamb is a specialty and it will be difficult to pass this up and try the gyro sometime.  There was a generous amount of juicy, oven roasted lamb and I had every intention of pausing to take a picture which would demonstrate how meaty the sandwich was but I plowed right through.  It's seems to be on the daily specials menu pretty often, along with 'Lamb in the Oven,' a plate of roast lamb with rice.

There seems to regularly be a cod dish on the daily menu, baked or fried, and I really wanted to try one but succumbed to the tempting description of Chicken Astragon on another visit - chunks of chicken in a wine sauce with mushrooms and penne.  This was second only by a little bit to the Lamb in a Pita as the best thing  I've had here.

I still haven't gotten to try the yogurt, honey and walnuts but I think the tzatzaki is made with the house-made Greek yogurt.  This is often served as a complementary starter with bread.

The menu is small and the hours short.  Although they don't have regular evening hours, I was told they will stay open with advance notice and a minimum party of six, plus they'll take walk-ins if they're open.  It's a small staff and service can get slammed if they get a little crowded.  Unfortunately it's probably not a good option for a quick business lunch unless you call ahead for take-out.

One of the things the new owners intend to do is a better job of publicizing the restaurant.  Perhaps that will lead to expanded hours of operation.  The place isn't hard to find but can be easy to miss; it's actually on the back side of the building, facing the St. Joseph's Parkway and the Pierce elevated, not Jefferson.  For intrepid diners daring enough to venture inside the Loop in search of good food, Myth Kafe is worth a visit.

Myth Kafe,  (Note:  the link on the Yelp listing is to the former restaurant which is misleading about days and hours of operation and daily specials.  FWIW, any reviews or pictures posted before 8/30/14 are of the previous operation).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mama Yu Indonesian Bistro - Halal

10815 Beechnut @ Wilcrest

I am indebted to Zain Mohammed for introducing me to this one.  Zain is a UH student who blogs about Halal places; he tipped me off to his blog recently and when I read his review of this place I headed right over.  The restaurant has been in existence for around a year and a half but I just haven't been paying much attention to the restaurant scene and I had not heard of it.

I had the Nasi Goreng Jawa on my first visit.   Jawa means this is a Javanese version of Nasi Goreng (fried rice) with a fried egg on the side instead of scrambled egg mixed in. This came with some sambal, the Indonesian hot sauce, and kecap manis, the Indonesian syrupy soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar.  I had ordered the spicy version of the dish and didn't need the sambal but really enjoyed adding a few drizzles of the soy sauce around the edges to mix in.  I got the version with beef, shrimp and chicken.

My only visit to our other Indonesian restaurant had left me underwhelmed and I've never gotten around to going back.  I may have just ordered wrong or caught them on an off day because I know a lot of people rave about that place.  It was just the opposite here -  I went back very the next day (and once again within a week) and tried the Ayam Goreng Mama Yu - traditional Indonesian fried chicken (1/2 order).  The chicken has a lite crispy batter and came with a dipping bowl of a spicy shrimp paste sauce; I also ordered a small side of rice and Teh Botol, one of the two packaged jasmine tea drinks available. Indonesians eat rice with everything but if you don't order one of the rice dishes then rice is extra.

I went back for another visit really craving some more of the Nasi Goreng but once I started looking over the menu again, I realized there were so many things I wanted to try it would be foolish to start picking favorites now.  I wound up with an Indonesian 'meat 'n 3' dish, Nasi Padang Rendang.  This had been recommended by one of the staff and the description on the menu sounded fantastic but the picture hadn't really appealed to me (there are pictures on the wall of many of the dishes).  It exceeded my expectations considerably.   It was a portion of tender beef rendang, cooked in coconut milk with spices, rice, of course, a vegetable curry with some variety of green bean, cabbage and jackfruit, a hard boiled egg in a spicy sauce and an anchovy sauce at 9 o'clock.

My only disappointment so far has been Tongseng, a lamb stew that I ordered on a day when I wasn't feeling very well and thought a hearty stew would be just the thing.  Nothing really stood out about the dish and it got rather monotonous by the time I finished it.  But clearly there are many more things on the menu here to try.

The restaurant is open 7 days a week and also serves Halal Chinese food except on Mondays.

Mama Yu is a great addition to our international food scene.

Mama Yu

I see the Facebook pages say they take orders for Tumpeng, just this year declared the official national dish of Indonesia by the Ministry of Tourism.