16338 Kensington Dr., Sugar Land
Pure Indian Vegetarian, The Taste of the Country and The Taste of South are some of the descriptive phrases in the window and on the menu and website for this restaurant. I went down to check out the Chaat House that used to be at this location and was surprised to see it replaced by this. I was even more surprised when the silverware holder on the table and the menu informed me it's part of a chain of more than 50 restaurants across the country. The country referred to is India; there are only a handful of locations in the US, 5 or 6 currently, but more are being added. I don't eat at a lot of chains but I was interested to see how the food might compare to some of my favorite places in Little India. I wondered, do Indians have higher expectations of chain restaurants, higher standards?
The restaurant is based in Gujurat and serves the foods of South India including the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The menu is thick both because of the binding and rather thick stock and also larger type but it is not overly long. In the Idli Stall section are almost a dozen offerings; in the Dashing Dosaz section, well over a dozen. There are Amazing Uthappams, Ravishing Ravas and so on.
I had been anticipating a vegetarian meal but wanted something substantial; there were two vegetable kurmas and I settled on the Chettinad Kurma with a Malabari Porotta. I had no idea what Chettinad referred to but the Wikioracle has revealed to me that Chettinad is a region in Tamil Nadu State that is known for it's spicy and aromatic dishes. I noticed when the dish was placed before me that it was very aromatic and it also proved to be wonderfully spicy. I had wondered if the spices would be tamed down for a chain restaurant's clientele which I generally think of being less adventurous eaters but if this had been tamed down at all, the unadulterated version might be outside my comfort zone for heat. There were peas, still with a bit of crunch, carrots, small florets of broccoli and cauliflower, green beans or long beans, a little corn, I think. I was very pleased by the dish; it was one of the two best vegetable kurmas I've ever had and certainly the spiciest. The portion was a little small but kurma is very filling and I left satisfied.
I was given a choice of steamed rice or Malabari Porota to accompany this. I've been eating almost exclusively Indian and Thai food for several weeks and was getting tired of rice so I went with the Porota. The Malabari Porota is produced by rolling out the dough in a long thin strip, coiling it up into a multi-layered circle about the size of a corn tortilla and then frying it. It proved to be very good, easily torn into pieces and excellent for sopping up the kurma. It was smaller than other porotas/parathas I've had.
This is outside my usual grazing range and I don't turn to chain restaurants very often but a few days later, hungry for some Indian food, I thought I'd give it another try to see if my first impressions held up. There was a problem, though. The restaurant was in it's first 2 weeks of operation and there were recurring equipment problems; 2 of the first 4 times I tried to eat there they weren't open when the sign said they should be, some dishes could not be prepared and the kitchen was slow overall. They were also very short staffed. I think all these problems have been taken care of by now. I tried again a couple of days later and caught them open.
According to the corporate website the company operates a chain of pizza parlors called Uncle Sam's and a chain of Northern Indian barbecue grill places called Saffron offering both meat and vegetable grilled items; all locations of both chains are in India. I wondered if any of the items from those menus also made it onto the Sankalp menu and I did find one pizza, a Chennai Pizza Uthapam. I wasn't in the mood for pizza, however, so I went for a quesadilla.
This is the Madurai Sandwich Uthappam. The way it was described by the waitress and the way it looks I thought: This is an Indian vegetarian quesadilla (there is a cheese version with paneer). This was two thin, light uthappams, more pancake-like than any Uthappams I've had, layered with peas and carrots and curry paste and maybe a few other vegetables, garnished as you see. It brought a smile to my face plus it was tasty. Madurai is a city in Tamil Nadu; I don't know if this is a typical dish there or a creation of the restaurant's menu development department but I don't care how authentic it is - it was tasty and fun and I was encouraged to try more of their Uthappams. The waitress said you could pick it up and eat it like a sandwich if you liked but I think it would have been pretty messy.
The Uthappam came with a dipping bowl of the house coconut chutney and was preceded by a small cup of a spicy and sour Rasam and a cup of Sambar, plus four house chutneys. I had seen these being served at other tables but didn't get any with my Kurma. The portions of Rasam and Sambar were small but a server came around offering to refill both, even offering to leave the saucier on the table. The chutneys included, from the left, Coconut, Gunpowder, Mint/Coriander/Chile Pepper and Garlic. I went straight for the garlic chutney and was sure it was going to be my favorite until I tried the coconut and mint/coriander concoctions. Those were all good but I didn't get much spice or flavor or anything out of the gunpowder chutney. I learned on a subsequent visit that gunpowder chutney is produced from ground spices, ground lentils and oil and the ingredients tend to settle. You have to dig down in the cup and stir it up to get the spices and flavor, at the top is mostly oil.
With this meal I also ordered the restaurant's version of Chhas, the Indian buttermilk, which is also referred to as Neermore on the menu. As served here is was thicker than any I've had before, the same texture as American cultured buttermilk but not as sour; it was not as spicy with cumin and cilantro as others I've had but I liked it.
I had decided Sankalp was worthy of a blog post, perhaps blowing any credibility I might have as an explorer of off-beat eateries, but I wanted to visit one more time to try something on the Dosa menu. Dosas are a fascinating food, thin, light crepes with a spicy filling. Well, the Masala Dosa is fascinating and can be excellent. My favorite is at Shri Balaji Bhavan. But every time I've tried other varieties of dosas I've been disappointed. The menu here offers 2 dosa combination plates, the Three Barrel Dosa, one of them being Nilgiri that I can remember, and the Dosa Combination Platter and I wanted to try one of those to sample three dosas at the same time. I ordered the Dosa Platter which included an achar dosa and a Chennai dosa with seasoned paneer, plus one other I've forgotten. These were described as small but each was about 10 or 11 inches in length. They looked like three large breakfast burritos on the plate. This came with the Rasam and Sambar plus the four chutneys. To my surprise my favorite was the sour and salty achar dosa but overall this was the least satisfying meal of the three I've had; I still don't get dosas, other than the Masala Dosa.
The website of the Sugar Land store is under construction. On the corporate website you can find out more about the company including their Guinness World Record Dosa. Click on the Sankalp page on the home page and then on Menus at the top to see a pdf file of a menu that is close to the menu of the Sugar Land location. On the home page is a link to USA menus but the menus which come up there are very different. Apparently the Sugar Land store has a menu that is closer to what is offered in the restaurants in India than other US locations. I've identified a few items on the menu locally that are not on that corporate menu file and the menu you'll see at the restaurant has more elaborate explanations of the items.
Sugar Land seems to have a substantial Indian community; there are two other Indian restaurants on this short street and I've also eaten at Udipi and the new Indian Spices and Snacks on US-90A in old downtown Sugar Land. It will be interesting to see how this one fares.