Monday, September 6, 2010

Sweet n Namkin - Revisited

10736 W. Bellfort - CLOSED

I first reported on this place several months ago, shortly after it opened as primarily a sweets and snacks shop. It's undergone some big changes recently and now offers a menu of vegetarian dishes everyday plus some specials and I thought it was worthy of an updated report.

The restaurant is co-owned with Salaam Namaste next door; a door connects the two but they maintain totally separate kitchens, both 100% Halal with Sweet n Namkin also being 100% vegetarian. The two kitchens are to assure that there is no 'hocus-pocus' about vegetarian dishes being prepared in a kitchen that also prepares meat dishes, I was told. It is okay for customers to take food from one side to the other, however, to eat with friends.

There is a menu of about a dozen vegetarian offerings every day now plus specials four days a week. On Wednesday, the special is Biryani, on Saturday, a Gujarati thali, pictured above, and on Sunday Halwa Puri. I think the other special is either Thursday or Friday but I can't remember what it is.

I know of only one other restaurant in Houston offering Gujarati dishes, Bhojan on the SW Freeway; I haven't been there in over a year now but I have had excellent food there. They ply you with a very good buffet and an endless supply of fresh, hot roti. Here, the special is a fixed thali consisting of a yogurt curry, warm and spicy with green onion and cilantro, an eggplant curry (brinjal) on the left, even spicier, and a third curry in the background with squash (zucchini) and split yellow peas that I could identify; this one was not as spicy as the eggplant (these components may vary). Besides the rice and onions, there is a warm, fresh, melt in your mouth pappadum and two fresh warm chapatis in the background (both this place and the one next door just refer to chapatis as tortillas in explaining them but they do make their own on premises). There is a wedge of lime and a piece of Laddu, a sweet. Lurking behind the onions is a pickle that I didn't get the name of and could only identify one ingredient, a 1" long, 1/2" wide piece of ginger root. I understand this is to be added to the other dishes as the diner sees fit but I sampled it but didn't use it.

This was excellent and much spicier than anything I've had at Bhojan. I've been asked regularly whether I wanted something spicy or medium but I can't remember if I was given that option on this dish.

This was more than enough to fill me up but I also had a watermelon lassi. The lassi here are thin, closer in thickness to an aguafresca than a milk shake. I can appreciate both this and the very thick ones like the ones I had at Bhojan which practically require a spoon; this one was tasty and thirst quenching without being so filling.

The vegetable biryani was a beautifully colorful and aromatic dish with long grain rice, peas, green beans, tomato, corn, potato, shredded carrot, and cauliflower plus whole clove and cardamom, pieces of cinnamon and some apricot to add a little sweetness, plus other spices including chile powder. As with the thali, this came with a cup of slivered onions on the side.

Several items are offered here that are also offered at Bansuri, the famous Indian food truck around the corner. I had never had the Dahi Puri at Bansuri or anywhere so this is the first time I tried this dish and I loved it. The thin mini-puri shells are filled with chickpeas, a creamy, whipped yogurt, sweet and spicy chutneys, and topped with a generous heap of sev, the little fried noodles. I got it spicy and my mouth was happy for minutes after finishing it off. These things are as much fun as a loaded ice cream sundae with its contrasting flavors and textures of the ice creams, fruits and nuts and syrups. In this case, it's the creamy yogurt, the slightly firm, slightly chewy, slightly salty chickpeas, the sweet date/tamarind chutney and spicier cilantro/jalapeno (you can see them through the thin puri shells) and the crunchy sev. You're supposed to put a whole one in your mouth but I found them a little large for that and, anyway, I liked the process of biting into one, letting it begin to drip and ooze, and then putting the rest in my mouth. I used the spoon to finish off the Yogurt Chutney Noodle soup that covered the bottom of the plate when I was finished and I did go through a heap of the flimsy napkins.

I had a salt lassi with cumin with this, only a little salty but with about two tablespoons of cumin seeds; again, very refreshing and thirst quenching without being that filling.

This place subscribes to the Little Bigs philosophy of sliders - sliders are mini-sandwiches in theory only. These Dabeli were much heftier than the ones at Bansuri and were very good. The patty, mostly potato with some onion, achieved that color by the incorporation of all the spices including red and green chile powders, cilantro, cumin, and others and perhaps also the chutneys - it wasn't clear that there had been any chutneys applied to the buns. The nuts looked like almonds but didn't taste like almonds to me; I was told they were hazelnuts. There was a generous number of nuts in each sandwich and there were also like-sized pieces of potato and onion in the patties.

These were very tasty (and spicy, per request) but unfortunately they use store-bought large dinner rolls and they were a little dry and very bready; I also would have liked a little more crunchy sev under the hood.

There is a variety of ready to eat pakora every day including potato, spinach, onion, jalapeno strips and whole jalapeno, plus samosas and a puri that I think is a Choley Puri. The whole jalapeno pakora is only partially seeded and deveined and has chat masala added for heat, the jalapeno strips, I believe, are seeded and deveined. I've liked them all but they are not crispy. These come with the tamarind chutney with date and a cilantro/jalapeno chutney.

As detailed before, there are also shakes, lassi, fruit juices and fruit cups, plus kulfi and falooda. (My earlier report on Sweet n Namkin is here).

I think this place is a real neighborhood gem. The young woman who runs the front of the house is always so cheerful and pleasant and helpful and a pleasure to deal with. She keeps insisting I have to try the Halwa Puri, a traditional Pakistani Sunday breakfast, served all day, so I'll have to go in to try that sometime.

They are currently open from 3pm to 11pm, Tuesday thru Friday, until Midnight on Saturday , and 10am to 10pm on Sunday. I'm hoping they will expand the hours to include weekday lunches. Salaam Namaste, next door, is open much longer hours.

Friday, September 3, 2010

All Bengal Sweets and Restaurant

13438 Bellaire Blvd.


This restaurant has been in operation previously on Cook at High Star and only recently moved to this location. I had never heard of it before and had just gotten a glimpse of the sign passing by one time and went back to try it, not realizing I was going to be able to get anything more than sweets and snacks. The menu, however, includes a few curries, some tandoori and grill items, and three biryanis.

Space is shared with a small (2 aisle) Indo-Pak and Bangladeshi grocery store and Halal meat and fish market but the menu here says it's the 'one and only authentic Bangladeshi cuisine.'

I started with a few snacks, which were all ready-to-eat, a couple of onion pakora, a fish chop, a samosa and a dal puri. The pakora were maybe the best I've had, aromatically and taste-wise very oniony, both crunchy and chewy; it's been my experience that pakora look great but too often are more comparable to limp french fries than good, crisp ones. That's not the case here. The fish chop was interesting, sort of reminiscent of a fish croquette in a high school lunch room. The samosa was almost the equal of my favorite in town, the excellent, huge ones at Savoy on Wilcrest. This was much smaller and not quite as complexly seasoned or piquant but benefiting from some bits of potato and whole peas instead of just a puree inside. The dal puri was like others I have had, no where near as spectacular tasting as it was looking, unfortunately. With these I got a simple jalapeno 'sauce' that didn't appear to be anything more than pureed jalapeno,without much heat.

I got a Pakola with this, a Pakistani Cream soda, at least in name. It tasted nothing like any cream soda I've ever had before, completely lacking in vanilla as far as I could detect. One article online calls it an ice cream soda but the label on the can itself only calls it a cream soda with citric acid and 'cream soda flavours.' It wasn't bad but perhaps something of an acquired taste, kind of like Dr. Brown's Cel Ray Tonic is for some people. It was made with real sugar and is the color of lime jello. They also have a Pakola Lychee soda.

I took a little stroll thru the tiny grocery where every available space was filled with merchandise, there were freezers, a small produce rack with an interesting, baseball bat-sized gourd/squash, bulbous on one end, what I guessed were bitter melon and a few other items. I marveled at the list of fishes I'd never heard of on the list of available fishes on the wall of the small meat and fish department. I picked up a package of spicy Chanachur, the Bangladeshi name for Bombay Mix, and some Black Onion Seeds from the spice selection.

I asked one of the proprietors, who had shadowed me closely, answering my questions, what his best sweet was and he suggested the Chom Chom. I got one of those (on top in the photo) and another one that I thought looked awfully good which is known as Kala Jamun. That's a saucer sized plate, by the way.

These were simply incredible. I'd had Cham Cham before at another sweet shop but it was no where near as good as this one; it had held a hidden pocket of syrup that burst when I bit into it and drizzled down my chin and on to my shirt. Bangladeshi sweets are said to be characteristically 'wet' and these were but not drippingly so like that one. Biting into these or applying pressure caused the syrup to swell to the surface but it was reabsorbed when pressure was released in a nifty and intriguing display of culinary engineering. They were almost overwhelmingly sweet, as sweet as any honey-laced baklava I've ever had. The second example had an exterior layer, a thin crust if you will, providing a little more textural complexity, and a beautiful, rosy red interior which I wish I had taken a picture of. If I understand correctly, the Kala Jamun is produced by deep frying the Chom Chom. Besides these two, the only ones I've tried, the Laddu looks awfully good.

These have become my new favorite sweets from the Subcontinent and I have to practice self-restraint and moderation around them.

There is a variety of syrups and herbs and spices used to flavor these, principally rose water and saffron, I think, but more intriguing to me is what they're made of. I couldn't believe it when I came across a recipe and explanation that they're actually made of cheese! I let a portion of one dry out in the refrigerator for a couple of days and managed to convince myself that I could detect the tiny curds and a cheesy taste (yeah right) but I would never have deduced that without having read it online. I had yet another revelation on another visit when I spied a bowl of the Chom Chom behind the sweets counter, the unfinished product, and they looked just like stubby cheese sticks.

I also went in once to try one of the curries. I had read that Hilsha is the national fish of Bangladesh and also that it's very, very bony. I was also warned of that my the guy taking my order so I decided to try the Rohu Fish Curry which he said had 'some bones.' Actually, this was very bony by my standards. I wasn't very impressed by the dish, the curry wasn't bad but not very interesting; it had more tomato than any curry I've ever had I think, and a nice level of spiciness but the fish itself was the disappointment. Rohu is supposedly a variety of carp and carp is supposed to be an oily fish but the flesh was very dry, not moist and flaky. The curry came with a generous portion of plain white rice which was also presented very dry, not sticky but a little clumpy. I understand Bangladeshis eat with their bare hands so that may be the preferred way to serve it.

On another visit I had some more onion pakora and also the eggplant pakora and tried the Goat Rezala and liked it a lot more than the fish. It was a very pungent curry, actually looking much like the Rohu Fish curry but without anywhere near the amount of tomato and more piquancy. The goat was bone-in, of course, and goat is a pretty bony meat, too, and there wasn't all that much meat, actually. There was also at least one piece of organ meat, which I couldn't identify but certainly was not muscle, and possibly another, a small section of liver, so those who are off-put by offal should avoid this one. The rice on this occasion was also dry, although not as dry as before. I haven't tried any of the roti.

The chai is not bad here. They use disposable plates, cups and utensils for some items, plates, flatware and glasses for others. Unfortunately the chai is served in a disposable foam cup.

Prices and dishes may vary at the restaurant, of course.