Houston Restaurant Musaafer in The Galleria Stuns With Artful Indian Cuisine

Lychee Ceviche at Musaafer

Since opening in May 2020, Musaafer at The Galleria in Houston has consistently delivered exceptional cuisine and drinks that exceed even the considerable promise of its palatial space. The environs even seem to have their own energy, starting with the darkened entry area, which seems to say, “This place contains secrets and wonders.” 

A mirrored wall in the Sheesh Mahal dining room, just one of the many glamorous settings Musaafer offers. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

First, some expectation-setting: Musaafer is an Indian restaurant that is not casual or cheap (but it can be fun, as evidenced by the upcoming Bollywood Brunch). Considering the a la carte menu, where entrées range from $23 for the vegetarian Dal Musaafer to $65 for the beef vindaloo made with filet mignon, its closest peer might be equally ambitious Amrina in The Woodlands. Also, it would be remiss to not recognize the chefs who paved the way for upscale Indian cuisine in Houston, such as Kiran Verma of Kiran’s

The genius behind Musaafer’s savory dishes is executive chef Mayank Istwal, and the 12-course tasting menu for $175 plus a 20% service charge (gratuity) is the ultimate expression of his and his team’s work. Cocktail or wine pairings can be added for an additional $75 per person. Diners can select the regular tasting menu or a vegetarian one (which entails only swapping out a few dishes, as part of the regular menu is vegetarian anyway). There are also a few luxurious add-on dishes for additional cost. This puts Musaafter among the most upscale tasting menu restaurants in the Greater Houston area, such as March or th_prsrv. Houston Food Finder was invited to try the Spring 2024 tasting menu — and rest assured, this is an experience that will not leave you still hungry at the end. 

Oh, and if you enjoy photographing your meals (especially at eminently Instagrammable restaurants like this), you’ll be delighted to know that the tables are outfitted with small lamps that facilitate excellent phone shots in the dark dining room. (No flash, please. It disturbs your fellow diners and phone flash photos look terrible anyway.) You can even adjust the brightness or dimness on the lamps with just a touch. 

Twelve dishes is a lot, so I’ll cover the most impactful bites of the night. (Also, if I say everything I want about a dozen dishes, this is going to be a 3,000 word essay. Please, sir, I have a family.) 

The tasting menu experience starts with a Cumin & Truffle Macaron as an amuse bouche (a small-bite appetizer), and I warn you that pastry chef Sumant Sharma’s work is going to disappear faster than you expect, and you will miss it when it’s gone. I would have bought a box of six to take home. The cumin-scented cookie halves were as light and airy as I’ve ever had, and the truffle pastry cream incredibly decadent. Not that it was needed (and not that I’m complaining), but the macaroon was topped with Kaluga caviar, too. 

Musaafer's Achapam with roasted sweet pepper and tamarind chutneys, avocado purée and brilliant orange and red edible flower petals
Musaafer’s Achapam with roasted sweet pepper and tamarind chutneys, avocado purée and brilliant orange and red edible flower petals. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Moving from the amuse bouche into the courses, you can hardly ask for a better start than the achapam, which looks like a Holi festival on a plate thanks to the scatterings of vibrantly colored spices. An achapam is a “cookie” (the texture is perhaps more like a crunchy pastry shell) made by dipping an iron mold into batter and then hot oil (very similar to bunuelos). The result is a thin-edged, delicate cookie — traditionally available at street vendors in India — that has lots of nooks and crannies. Musaafer elevates the achapam from light snack to culinary artwork by adding roasted sweet pepper and tamarind chutneys, avocado purée and brilliant orange and red edible flower petals. 

Coconut & Curry Leaf Oysters with coconut milk, ginger, curry leaf, chili oil and crunchy millet at Musaafer restaurant in Houston
Coconut & Curry Leaf Oysters with coconut milk, ginger, curry leaf, chili oil and crunchy millet. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

The Coconut & Curry Leaf Oysters with coconut milk, ginger, curry leaf, chili oil and crunchy millet marked the point where a few dishes in the middle of the meal flagged a bit. The thick, pale green coconut sauce might have been better served alongside something else. As it was, it not only didn’t add to the quality of the oysters, but completely distracted from them. The wedge of grilled squash was, by nature as a high water-content vegetable, simply too big and squishy for a good exterior sear and variety of excellent chutneys to save it. These few misses were not a dealbreaker for the overall meal, but these were the low points. 

In between those two dishes was a welcome respite: the Masala Papad with ahi tuna, achar (Indian pickle) emulsion, pickled serrano and ginger. After the excessively creamy sauce on the oysters, having this crunchy and beautiful snack was the antidote I needed. I enjoyed the regular-menu version of this with fresh tuna better than the vegetarian version with red bell peppers as a stand-in.

Lychee Ceviche at Musaafer
Lychee Ceviche at Musaafer. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

However, it would be exceedingly difficult for me to recommend the meat-eaters menu over the vegetarian one, because the latter included one of my favorite dishes of the night. Musaafer’s vegetarian take on ceviche was made with lychee as the main ingredient. As a seafood stand-in, the texture was perfect, and the yuzu contributed the expected tanginess while coconut milk lent richness. The scattered bits of “tooti frooti” (sugar syrup infused with fruit and made into little candies) and polka dots of basil and chili oil added circus-like color and fun. 

Lamb chops in coriander and chili sauce at Musaafer
Lamb chops in coriander and chili sauce at Musaafer. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

On the other hand, the regular menu has incredible lamb chops dusted in coriander and chili, so how can you miss out on those? Clearly, the only correct answer is to bring a friend, and each of you order the two different menus. 

Mango Pate De Fruit at Musaafer restaurant in Houston
Mango Pate De Fruit at Musaafer restaurant in Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Musaafer’s desserts are always fun and interesting, and the Mango Pate De Fruit — a creamy, tangy dessert in a deceptively realistic shape of an ice pop, stick and all — was no exception. What blew me away though was the candy-as-digestif served at the end.

Paan, the concluding sweet and herbal bite of Musaafer's Spring 2024 tasting menu
Paan, the concluding sweet and herbal bite of Musaafer’s Spring 2024 tasting menu. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Named paan after the betel leaf and nut concoction normally proffered after dinner in India, Musaafer’s version was far more elegant. A white onyx box was brought to the table, and inside was a thick leaf of chocolate enrobed in gold for each guest. It’s a mix of passion fruit chocolate, “digestive spices” and raspberry crisp and reminded me of two things: the bowl of candied and plain anise seeds found at the exit of more-casual Indian restaurants and what the end result would be if you made Fernet Branca-infused chocolates. This digestif candy will not be to everyone’s tastes, but I found it completely fascinating. 

cocktails at Musaafer
The University West (left) made Old-Fashioned-style with West U honey, Brugal 1888 rum and Black Walnut bitters. On the right is Bombay Velvet with Hendrick’s Gin, Lillet Blanc, Kewra flower water, lime and basil. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

I could write an entirely separate article about the cocktail program under beverage director, Afzal Kaba, which is as interesting and artful as the fare. The Musaafer website has a page that goes more in depth into the beverage philosophy, but one of the focus areas deserves special attention. The Beekeeper cocktail program is comprised of five groups of ingredients, each of which includes a local honey harvested within 6.5 miles of the restaurant. The selected ingredient group can be made into one of four cocktail styles: an Old Fashioned, an “easy” Old Fashioned (lower proportion of spirit to the other ingredients), a Gold Rush (traditionally a whiskey sour with bourbon, honey syrup and fresh lemon juice) or a hot toddy (perhaps not popular in the height of Houston’s summer, but definitely welcome in the winter). I chose a University West with honey sourced in West University, Brugal 1888 rum and black walnut bitters, and it was the bitters which kept this drink out of too-sweet territory. I’d happily cruise through the other four ingredient combinations. There are numerous other cocktails, including a Gin & Tonic program. Every cocktail I’ve tried at Musaafer is thoughtful and appealing. 

Service is exemplary. Every staff member who I’ve ever encountered at Musaafer are clearly well-educated about the concept, dishes and drinks, and seems to take pride in working there. Musaafer is a “deep” restaurant when it comes to the food, drinks, history and environment, so there are probably a thousand details to learn. My server in particular was incredibly kind and patient, and I still have a little guilt that those qualities were necessary. My reservation was at 8:15 p.m. and I was 15 minutes late. I greatly underestimated how long the tasting menu experience would be. I was the last person out of the restaurant, and my server and a few others ended up staying well after closing time. Still, there was not even the slightest whiff of impatience. 

Don’t be put off that the restaurant is located inside The Galleria. Once you’ve settled on self-parking in the brown or purple garage or valet, Musaafer is very convenient to access. Just go into the south doors facing Westheimer and the entrance is immediately on the right. From there, you’ll ascend the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor. 

If you enjoy and are able to partake in the crème de la crème of Houston’s dining scene, Musaafer is a restaurant that you should not miss. Istwal and his team are crafting dishes with incredible drama. After the tasting menu experience, an almost overwhelming parade of artistry and craftsmanship, you might leave a little dazed. Fortunately, it wasn’t a dream, and when the next seasonal tasting menu arrives, you can do it all over again. 

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