6855 Southwest Freeway @ Southwestern Inn
THIS RESTAURANT AND THE HOTEL IT WAS LOCATED IN WERE DESTROYED IN THE END OF MAY, 2013, BY A FIVE-ALARM FIRE THAT ALSO TRAGICALLY TOOK THE LIVES OF 4 HOUSTON FIRE FIGHTERS.
THE RESTAURANT HAS RE-OPENED AT 5901 HILLCROFT IN THE HEART OF THE MAHATMA GANDHI DISTRICT, IN THE SPACE FORMERLY OCCUPIED BY THE PAKISTANI RESTAURANT SABRI NIHARI.
I must have driven by this place hundreds, maybe thousands, of times when I worked at Greenway Plaza, but the thought of an Indian buffet at a motel didn’t sound very promising to me. Recently however I saw a good review somewhere and when I checked it out on b4, there were many favorable reviews plus even more under the restaurant’s previous name, Thali. So I was off to give it a try and am very glad I did.
The cuisine is primarily that of the western Indian state of Gujarat and this is apparently our only restaurant presenting this cuisine. Madhur Jaffrey has called Gujarati cuisine the haute cuisine of vegetarianism. There is a weekday lunch buffet from 11 to 3 on weekdays for $9.95; all other times (6-9:30pm weekdays, 11a-9:30 Saturday and Sunday) the buffet is $12.95.
The presentation is thali-style. Upon entering, you take a large stainless steel platter and load it up with stainless cups called katori; as you go through the buffet, you put each item in it’s own bowl. Actually, that’s the way I did it the first time but observed that some Indian customers put some of the foods directly on the platter or on pieces of naan.
This is my first experience of Gujarati cuisine and I have been very impressed. I am not an expert on either Indian or Pakistani cuisine but I have a little more familiarity with the latter; this is definitely the best Indian restaurant I have sampled in Houston. As at Himalaya, the outstanding Pakistani restaurant just a block or so away, cilantro figures prominently in some of the dishes. Another ingredient that is used a lot is sugar cane, processed and presented in several ways and sometimes referred to as gur, sometimes as jaggery. Lentils are also a very common ingredient.
The hostess has been very gracious and helpful; I have a lot to learn about Indian cuisine and table etiquette and I do wish they had the names of the dishes posted. I do know that I have had bajara roti, made with millet, puri, parathas, pooran poli, garlic chutney, and batata wada, plus mango burfi, chai and mango lassi. There is nan and papadum on the buffet but in loading up your platter you will want to allow for the puris and rotis and chapatis and pooran poli that are brought to the table fresh out of the kitchen. They’ll keep bringing them out until you wave them off. The shaak/vegetable curries have included corn and paneer, peas and paneer, potatoes (Batata nu Shaak?), eggplant (Ringan nu Shaak?), black-eyed peas and cabbage that I can remember. The garlic chutney is excellent and quite addictive. My favorite of the rotis is the Pooran Poli, a ‘tortilla’ with a sweet filling which they make with yellow lentils and gur. I’ve read online that this filling can be different vegetables and the first time I tried it I thought it was sweet potato.
Burfi has been called Indian cheesecake; it is actually condensed milk cooked down with additional sugar (jaggery), topped with a thin layer of edible silver called varak.
The thali pictured may not look like much food but I left thoroughly stuffed from that meal; this is due in part to the rotis, of course. The picture does not show the garlic chutney or mango lassi which had not been brought out yet. The lassi was presented in a soda fountain glass and was very filling, practically a meal in itself. The sauces in the cup at the top of the plate, beyond the potato balls which I think are called batata wada, included one made of cilantro and a sweet one; there is a balance of sweet, salty and spicy in the flavors presented.
After more than a year I recently revisited this place. I had heard there had been a change of ownership and the food had slipped a bit. I'm not sure of the former report but the decor has changed a bit, I don't believe I recognized anyone from the staff and the buffet may have been a bit less sumptious, I'm not sure. The hours and prices had also changed; this is reflected in the information above.
I took a lot less from the buffet this time. From 1 o'clock I took some pappadums and a puri, a pickled dish consisting of carrots and peppers and garlic, rice, and a yogurt soup called kadhi, thickened with chickpea flour. At 9 o'clock is the same thing I had on a previous visit while in the center is Navratnan Kurma. Navratnan means nine gems and there are supposed to be nine vegetables and nuts in this; had I known that I would have been counting but I did get potato, French beans, peas and paneer that I remember. At the top of the platter is Oondiyu which involved some interesting dumplings and a dal I didn't recognize. I found out later online that the dumplings were made of fenugreek leaves.
This picture was taken before the hot, fresh rotis arrived. There is one change, for sure, in that regard. Whereas previously there were maybe a half dozen rotis, there seemed to be only three being served now, chapati plus my two favorites, bajara roti (millet based) and poolan pori, the one with the sugarcane paste filling. These were only half-portions, not full sized.
I didn't care for the thick yogurt very much and allowing that the papps and puri on the buffet weren't hot and fresh like the ones brought around to the table, everything was very good. If the food has slipped any it hasn't been by much.
Besides the hours having changed to now include Tuesdays and the price having gone up by $1, they now offer Tiffin to go, i.e., to go meals, for $6.99, as detailed on the website. Sounds like a good deal.
Updated September, 2010