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 one of the versions of sambol offered here, this one 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 here.  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 +.