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Houston Restaurant Week speed dating: Molé mania at Cielo & illicit chit Chaat at Indika

Houston Restaurant Week speed dating: Molé mania at Cielo & illicit chit Chaat at Indika

Dear Restaurant Week Diary,

I'm beginning to think that participating in Houston Restaurant Week is the new speed dating: The quick judgments, the merry-go-round of seats, the frugal feast — it's all part of  the thrilling rush of snagging a tantalizing new supper.

I've been making the rounds, and although I'll deny the tweets accusing me of being a "#restaurantweekslut," it's been a pleasure rekindling with some of the city's finer dining establishments.

At a recent lunch, I checked in with a coworker at Cielo — the slightly upscale Tex-Mex eatery on the north end of downtown. Don't go here for people watching, because there aren't ever any people at Cielo. Also, don't go for the first course of the lunch menu. My tortilla soup was decent enough, but seemed to feature vegetables straight out of a bag of frozen mixed peas and carrots.

My companion's salad differed greatly from its description on the menu. What was meant to be a mix of baby field greens, sun-dried figs, pea pods and cherry tomatoes tossed in a roasted hazelnut vinaigrette arrived at the table as a wilted heap of mushy bagged salad mix accompanied by slices of cucumber and scant slabs of unripe tomatoes — no figs or pea pods in sight. In a word, the salad was inedible.

Nevertheless, Cielo won our hearts with the main courses. The chocolate molé atop chicken enchiladas had a quality that can't be found on Richmond Avenue's Tex-Mex dives, and was accompanied by a ramekin of refried beans with a silky texture unlike the more common gelatinous, pasty variety. The tacos al carbon also pleased, simply complemented with chopped cilantro and crumbled queso fresco (although the charro beans are very take-it-or-leave-it).

Later, I found myself booking a nighttime table at Indika. It was my first stop at the lower Westheimer modern Indian hotspot in over a year — and it was worth the wait. As opposed to the borderline hostile vibes I received from waiters at The Grove and Catalan, my party was warmly greeted with an amuse bouche and taste of an Indian scotch.

A first course of mulligatawny soup featured a green broth with asparagus and sizable shrimp — a dish I could easily recommend. A tasting of Chaat (Indika's rendition of street food) was also pleasing with its mélange of south Asian morsels.

The star entrée on Indika's restaurant week menu is patra fish — local grouper marinated in a green masala and steamed in banana leaves. The steaming process lent the fish a moistness that all but disappears when a filet is grilled. The accompanying semolina purée and sautéed okra bring to mind a healthier version of Southern cheesy grits and fried okra.

The second entrée also delighted — an oven roasted heirloom eggplant stuffed with paneer and cashews, bathed in green masala sauce and also accompanied with okra. This may be the vegetarian option, but it's not exactly light fare. The paneer and nuts give the dish a meatiness that left me wishing that I had room to eat every last bite. Literally and figuratively, the eggplant is a multi-layered experience that will remain forever in my restaurant week memory.

The evening at Indika was also brought my first encounter with kulfi, India's answer to ice cream. The menu's mango kulfi is artfully sliced in circular disks — it has the richness of ice cream but refreshing, icy texture of sorbet. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the chocolate bread pudding with cardamom crème anglaise — Indika's answer to Western dessert decadence. The brick of luscious bread is the perfect reward as Houston Restaurant Week rambles on through Labor Day.

Happy dining,

Steven

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Oven roasted heirloom eggplant stuffed with paneer and cashews at Indika Photo by Cameron Blaylock
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Mulligatawny soup at Indika Photo by Cameron Blaylock
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Mango kulfi at Indika Photo by Cameron Blaylock
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Chaat at Indika Photo by Cameron Blaylock
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Chocolate bread pudding at Indika Photo by Steven Thomson
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Patra fish at Indika Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Cielo_tortilla
Tacos al carbon at Cielo Photo by Steven Thomson
News_Cielo_enchiladas
Chocolate mole enchiladas at Cielo Photo by Steven Thomson
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Tortilla soup at Cielo Photo by Steven Thomson