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Chef's Corner: Kiran Verma

Dai
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Kiran Verma

CHEF KIRAN VERMA Known by foodies as the Queen of North Indian cuisine, chef Kiran Verma continues the tradition of afternoon tea at the new Kiran’s Restaurant across from Levy Park. (Photo: Chuck Cook)

Find out about your favorite chefs in our Chef’s Corner column. This month, restaurant writer Dai Huynh interviews chef Kiran Verma.

Spiced hot tea is sold all over India by chai wallahs. The tea sellers all have their own special recipes, as does Kiran Verma. Behind the hammered brass doors of her namesake restaurant are 12-ounce tins brimming with her signature blend: bold, malty Assam with Earl Grey and Darjeeling teas. The brisk sultry blend is transformed when swirled with hot milk and sweetened with sugar. Black cardamom and ginger soothe frazzled nerves.

Kiran’s Restaurant (2925 Richmond) in Upper Kirby has a kitchen employee whose sole job is to make a perfect cup of masala chai and coffee. It’s unusual for a restaurant, even a fine-dining venue, to have a dedicated barista, but warming chai is a passion that bridges Chef Kiran’s North India past to present-day Houston.

On Saturday, her dining room is bustling with diners, nibbling on finger sandwiches and warm cranberry-orange scones. It harkens back to her mother and aunts gossiping over afternoon tea in ancient New Delhi, studded with garden ruins and splendid Mughal forts. The capital city cradles monuments and mausoleums alongside a contemporary art scene. In some ways, Kiran’s Restaurant embodies this spirit. The spacious venue across from Levy Park is a harmonious marriage of modern and tradition. Abstract art grace cool gray walls while postmodern furniture ingeniously melds with traditional relics like the towering Krishna statue.

Sipping chai, Verma breathed in cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and black peppercorns. This is her third cup of masala chai in less than hour. “More chai?” a waitress asked. Verma nodded yes and said, “I can live on chai.”

Afternoon tea was a Saturday pastime at your former Westheimer location. How is it doing at your new location?

We now offer it on Friday and Saturday. Afternoon tea starts as soon as lunch finishes on Friday, and on Saturday, our day starts at 2 p.m. with afternoon tea. It’s a popular time. Usually Friday is a lighter day, whereas on Saturday we may serve more than 100 people. Can you imagine the number of cups we go through? We offer a three-course afternoon tea for $40. So, if you have 80 people, you will need 240 cups!

People love to de-stress and celebrate with friends and families over afternoon tea during the holidays. How do you accommodate for all the different diets that come into play these days, from gluten-free to vegan?

Our typical tea menu starts with mushroom samosa and Indian masala chai. The second course include Darjeeling tea, vindaloo deviled egg and open-faced sandwiches: mango chicken, tandoori salmon and English cucumber. Finally, we end it on a sweet note with scones and a dessert buffet with Earl Grey tea. But after doing this for 10 years, I wanted to expand on it, and so now, we offer a vegetarian, vegan, children and, even, gluten-free menu. I really want to make people feel special because this is a luxury, not a necessity.

In India, chai is more than just a cup of tea to start the day. It’s  an integral part of life. Why is that?  

So when you go to somebody’s home in India, you always have tea. That is the first thing people do to welcome guests. People weren’t into alcohol; wine wasn’t so readily available. Also, too, there is a big gap between lunch and dinner in India. Lunch is around 1 or 2 p.m., so dinner isn’t until 9 or 10 p.m. So in India, you would always have some afternoon snacks with your tea, like pakoras, or fried vegetables and lamb or chicken kebab.

You’ve been busy tweaking your new North Indian menu while good family friend Dr. Jagdish Sharma is fine-tuning your wine program. Have you had any time off to visit relatives back in India or, simply, dine out?

Not really. There is so much work to be done since we’ve reopened. You would think that after doing this for 20 years, it would get easier. But in our new location, it’s like starting over again. We did get to go to San Francisco when my grandson was born and we went to Spruce (3640 Sacramento Street, San Francisco). It’s a new American restaurant with a beautiful setting and beautiful food. Also, we went to the big farmers’ market (Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building, #50, San Francisco). What a wonderful place.

In Houston, one of my favorite places is La Table Houston (1800 Post Oak Blvd #6110). They just have fine service, even more than the food. You know how it is. When you start going to one place over and over, people start to pamper you. And then there’s Tony’s (3755 Richmond Ave). It’s always my favorite, and when you entertain somebody, you take them there for beautiful food and service. We don’t get too many chances to try out new restaurants, but we did try Chris Shepherd’s second concept (One Fifth Romance Languages, 1658 Westheimer Road), which draws influences from Italy, Spain and France. We did enjoy that.

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

Chef Kiran features many Indian standards and street foods at her new location. Among her favorite new menu items is an egg white omelet on her lunch menu. Click here for the recipe.

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