I recently ate at the newly opened south Indian restaurant, Pavani, on Richmond Ave. in Houston. It has taken over the space recently vacated by my favorite south Indian vegetarian restaurant, Udupi, occupying one end of the building in whose opposite end is the wonderful (Greek) Mykonos Island Restaurant.
Pavani, in contrast to Udupi, serves meat on its lunch buffet and is not kosher. The dining room is spacious and aesthetic except for the first thing I noticed as I walked in: Two large copper swastikas hanging menacingly above, and on each side of, the manager standing at the cash register, framing him in parody of a Munich rally. Upon closer examination, however, one sees the beautiful and beloved figure of the Hindu god Ganesh in the center of this ancient Indian symbol that probably long predates our ancestors descent from the trees. Among his other attributes, Ganesh provides protection for new enterprises, which explains his position above Pavanis till. That said, I am not sure that I would care to be so culturally insensitive as to accuse Pavanis decorator of cultural insensitivity.
Happy to partake in Hindu cultural celebrations (Read: eat) and doing my utmost to ignore my now somewhat bruised ethnic feelings, I took as wide a detour as possible past the Ganeshes (At Kenny and Ziggys would the equivalent problem be how to sneak past the Kenishes?) and proceeded to the buffet. After several trips, I succeeded in arranging a colorful and enticing variety of dishes on a front corner table especially picked to provide a panoramic view of the restaurant. Sitting down, I was anticipating a feast.
But, discovering once again that not all that glitters is gold, I found the tandoori chicken and the two types of goat meat way too dry and tough, perhaps because they were left, as was everything else, uncovered for too long on the steam table. I skipped the other chicken offering because the colorless cubed fowl looked dried out and rather unattractive, mixed in with contrasting wilted greenish something or other. The spinach, onion and mixed pakoras were oily and cold, although their fruity (Plum?) dipping sauce was so tasty that I was tempted to spoon it as is and did make the pakoras edible. Im almost sure that pakoras should not be left on a buffet table for any extended length of time. They are best when fresh and hot, no?
The chefs special vegetables, consisting mainly of chilli, onion and potato, was very satisfying, probably due to my lifelong affinity for its main ingredients (I have always considered a plate laden with boiled potatoes, scallions, radishes, hardboiled eggs, olives and a big dab of mustard to be a perfect meal). The vegetables and bean offerings were only so so and, because I did not wish to disturb the crust covering the saag paneer and so did not try it, I cannot venture an opinion on it. My onion uthapam, which I ordered in lieu of a dosa, was bland and nondescript. Ill order it with green hot peppers next time and will ask that it be cooked just a bit longer, to caramelize it slightly so as to give it just enough color and flavor to alleviate my feeling that it is only a pale ghost of what it should be.
It was a bit disconcerting to see a frozen vegetable mix in one of three yellow rice dishes. But the other two were wonderful. The highlight of my meal was, as usual, the naan, served fresh and hot to my table, though it was on the brittle side, as opposed to soft and suitable for dipping, scooping and grabbing. I was also very pleasantly surprised by Pavanis version of the amba-like chutney, the yellowish lemony and bitter mix found in many Indian restaurants. This one is an explosive, spicy concoction, heavily laden with curry, red hot peppers, oil and cauliflower, a true and unique thing of beauty.
At 11:45 AM the dozen diners in the 150-odd person capacity restaurant barely even began to give it a sense of occupancy. By 12:15, the guests dwindled; the four remaining diners seemed dramatically out of place in the large dining room and were, sadly, far outnumbered by the big room's staff of six who could barely contain their boredom. They did, however, their anxious best to refresh drinks and to keep busy by obsessively removing plates from diners tables, sometimes even before they were vacant of food.
I left shortly thereafter, not wishing to chance being left embarrassingly alone in the company of the staff, like some throwback British Raj Colonel, fearfully eating his lonely meal in a Northwest Frontier fort at the height of The Indian Mutiny, surrounded by savage dark and moody native servants, yearning for the pale wife and children waiting in England for his return. Outside his door, in the hot and humid Indian night, mahouts watered the elephants, while native soldiers secretly conspired against him, sharpening their daggers in anticipation of cutting his throat or stabbing him in the back. He could trust no one, not even the sojourning seemingly suspiciously stately singularly superior supplely swarthy slyly secretive super supportive, somewhat surly sentimental subservient Sikh Supply Sergeant Sanjat Singh that so many seasons so faithfully served him, following the Colonel from post to post, from Delhi to Mysore, from Calcutta to Gujarat, and, lately, to the Frontier. Now, even after having saved the Colonels life on many occasions, he was not to be trusted. So many brave English officers never made it back, betrayed by vicious natives, their bones now bleaching in the sun of the Khyber Pass, vultures picking at their eyeballs I quickly got into my car and drove away. I plan to revisit Pavani some day, perhaps when its a bit more peaceful.
Pavani, while offering twice the number of items on its lunch buffet as did its predecessor, serves as proof of what many of us have long contended: size does not matter. I certainly hope that once it improves its food (Which wont take much), it will also figure out a way to rotate the buffet items until the well deserved flood of customers begins, solving the problem best addressed by Rule # 1 Of Buffet Management:
The less the rotation, the worse the food;
The worst the food, the less the customers;
The less the customers, the smaller the income;
The smaller the income, the less the rotation
Its a vicious cycle which not even fancy silverware, cloth napkins and two tablecloths per table at lunchtime can overcome.
Whether Pavani succeeds in conquering the curse of many new buffet restaurants or not, I wont say, although I do have an opinion. There is one thing that I am sure of, however: rent on Richmond is expensive, and Madras Pavilion waits right around the corner.
By the way: did anyone eat at Udupi while it was around? Any comments?