Houston’s most ambitious Indian restaurant is finally ready to serve customers. Musaafer by the Spice Route Company will officially open its doors Monday, May 18 (a quiet soft opening will take place Saturday, May 16).
First announced two years ago, Musaafer, Hindi for “traveler,” aims to take diners on a journey across the subcontinent. With a high-style interior and Insta-worthy food presentations, Musaafer aspires to set itself apart from both its obvious competitors (Kiran's, Verandah) and its immediate neighbors such as global sushi powerhouse Nobu.
“There are so many interpretations of Indian cuisine,” Mithu Malik, who owns the restaurant with her husband Shammi, said in a statement. “At Musaafer, our first U.S. restaurant, the intention is to showcase our homeland in a manner that authentically honors the country’s culinary diversity. Guests will have the opportunity to discover unique flavors and presentations – both traditional and cutting edge – from 29 states within a truly immersive space.”
To create that “truly immersive space,” Malik turned to Chromed Design Studio. For its first American project, the Delhi-based firm created seven distinct rooms within Musaafer's 10,000-square-foot location in the Galleria VI. Influences draw from India’s spice markets, royal palaces, and opulent private homes.
“The key concept was to build several spaces each with unique characteristics with the kitchen and bar as the two focal points,” Chromed Design Studio owner Abhigyan Neogi said. “Our approach was to convert Musaafer’s abstract meaning into a physical space that symbolizes multiple experiences threaded together by one common vision. The space is extremely vivid and feels more like a collection of artifacts, furniture, art and light fixtures that could have been acquired over travels throughout India.”
Every surface has been carefully considered to create a distinct impression. For example, the “Traveler’s Room” includes a 12-foot statue, and the “Diwan Lounge” matches tufted sofas and chairs with marble tables and wine storage that’s inspired by an aviary. A private dining room above the main dining room, known as the “Sheesh Mahal,” has a ceiling decorated with 200,000 hand-cut antique mirrors. When the restaurant is allowed to operate at full capacity, it will seat just over 200 people.
The Maliks have hired Mayank Istwal as Musaafer’s executive chef. Istwal brings experience from some of India’s top luxury hotels, according to a press release. To help prepare him for Musaafer, the chef traveled across India’s 29 states to collect recipes and ideas.
Pastry chef Ruchit Harnej and bar manager Himanshu Desai bring their own high profile experiences from India to their roles. Sommelier Rebecca Beaman comes to Musaafer from acclaimed Texas resort The Inn at Dos Brisas, and Houston diners will recognize general manager Sebastien Laval from restaurants such as La Table and MAD.
Istwal’s menu features familiar dishes with innovative presentations. Consider his butter chicken three ways, including one with “centrifuged and clear clarified tomato sauce,” or a lamb shank with saffron cauliflower risotto and pepper gremolata (pictured above). Appetizers include savory mushroom eclairs, raw tuna chaat, and oysters with smoked cumin. Entrees include lobster curry, slow cooked black lentils, and mutton biryani with rose and pandan water. Musaafer will also offer a separate to-go menu that features a range of appetizers and entrees.
In keeping with the times, the restaurant has instituted a number of procedures to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. They include: hand sanitizer stations throughout the dining room; staff wearing masks; limiting restroom use to one customer at a time; and contactless payment. Valet service will not be available. The restaurant will operate at 25-percent capacity pending Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement about when the state’s restaurants will enter “phase 2” with 50-percent capacity.
When the Maliks announced their plans to open Musaafer two years ago, CultureMap compared its prospects to those of Baker Mayfield’s, who had just been selected as the first overall pick in the NFL draft, because the Heisman Trophy winner had the potential to lead the Cleveland Browns to success or become just another failed prospect. The analogy has never seemed more appropriate. In his first two years, Mayfield followed up an exciting first season that culminated in being a finalist for Rookie of the Year with a disappointing second season that featured him throwing almost as many interceptions as touchdowns.
Opening an ultra-ambitious restaurant that took two years to build wouldn’t be easy under normal conditions, and that’s only going to be more difficult in the middle of a pandemic. Musaafer has several components that bode well for its prospects: a talented team, an interior so luxuriously over-the-top that it almost makes MAD look like Luby’s, and a menu that’s inspired by one of the world’s greatest culinary traditions.
If it had opened six months ago, its potential would seem almost limitless, but the present moment makes its harder to predict the future. Hopefully, enough diners feel comfortable leaving their homes to give Musaafer a chance to succeed.