Menu offers twists on traditional fare

A diverse menu, fresh ingredients and distinctive food presentation have allowed Great W'kana Cafe in Meadows Place to become a well-known destination restaurant for Houston residents and visitors.

Head chef and owner Sunil Srivastava has worked in restaurants for more than 20 years in cities, such as New York and San Francisco, but moved to Sugar Land about four years ago to help a friend open a chain of restaurants. Three years ago, he and his wife, Anupama, opened Great W'kana Cafe to offer the variety of flavors common throughout India.

Great W'kana Cafe features an open kitchen, which allows the aromas from the chef's creations to saturate the intimate dining room. Svirastava said this is an unusual concept for Indian restaurants, but it has been well-received by guests.

Through his menu at Great W'kana Cafe, Srivastava offers authentic, homemade cooking that appeals to a variety of backgrounds.

"Our menu is different than any other restaurant," he said. "The menu of mine is not from the north or the south. It is handpicked from all regions of India. The nation, both in terms of cuisine and culture, is a very diverse place."

Menu items, such as the Kashmiri Roganjosh ($15)—an aromatic lamb dish with saffron, ginger and fennel—are common in India's northern Kashmir Valley, while items like the seasoned baby vegetables in a spinach puree known as Miloni subzi ($11) come from the southern regions. The most popular dishes offered include Srivastava's Biryani ($13–$19)—a mix of either meat or vegetables with rice and bread that is slow-cooked for about an hour over a coal fire in a sealed pot.

The menu includes several types of Biryani, and many customers make a point to call in their orders ahead of time. Biryani is sealed to lock in the flavors of the dish and is cooked in the traditional dum pukht style. "Dum" translates to "life" or "to breathe" and "pukht" is a word for "slow oven."

"We seal the [Biryani] tightly," Srivastava said. "This forces the life to stay inside [of the dish] and not escape. When you open it, you get the first aroma—the first taste—of the dish."

Srivastava said Indian food must be cooked in harmony with the flavors used. The restaurant was named "W'kana," which translates to "harmony," for this reason. Several of the dishes available include nontraditional Indian cuisine, such as the Sarson salmon ($15). Salmon is not typically available in India, but as a common local fish, Srivastava has made some modifications to include a grain mustard common in Calcutta—the capitol of West Bengal, India—and other old-world spices.

For Srivastava, cooking has been a way of life since childhood. After growing up in Jaipur, Rajasthan India, he set his sights on a career in food and attended the Institute of Hotel Management in Bangalore, India. Srivastava worked for numerous hotels and restaurants throughout his home country before moving to the U.S. in 2006.

By working in various locations, Srivastava has been able to master a variety of cuisines. He said that among the compliments he receives from his guests each week, many customers agree that his cooking methods and flavors result in truly authentic Indian dishes.

"This has become a destination restaurant," he said. "It is almost a ritual for some customers. We get people from all over the city. You feel pride when people say that."

Banquets and culinary classes

Chef Sunil Srivastava has a background in several cuisines, including Indian, French, Italian and European. He is launching a culinary school next to his restaurant called Pesto Restaurant and Banquets to offer his skills to students interested in the art of versatile cooking. The location is currently available for banquet and party rentals.

For more information, call 832-886-4291.

Q&A with Chef Srivastava

What is your favorite dish to prepare?

Kayashti Murgh Korma—boneless chicken thigh marinated with yogurt and spices and stuffed with a nut mixture. You seal the pot and allow the meat to cook in its own juices over a slow fire.

What kind of training do you have?

I went to culinary school for three years where I learned the management and hands-on aspect of hotel operations. I went to the ITC Sheraton as a kitchen management trainee for two years of rigourous training that shaped a young professional and aspiring chef to a matured chef.

What is the best compliment you ever received?

A lot of guests have said that this is the best Indian food they have had in the U.S. There are many compliments, like once a young girl told her mom, "Chef makes better food than you!"

Great W'kana Cafe

11720 W. Airport Blvd., Ste. 600, Meadows Place


Hours: Sun.–Thu. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5:30–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5:30–10 p.m.