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To see more of Pondicheri's delightful dining room and busy kitchen, browse through our slideshow.
Two dishes of chaat landed on our wooden table at Pondicheri in a swirl of colors. My dining companion and I briefly stopped to admire the two plates, both heaped high, each one an elegant mess. The more traditional papdi chaat was decorated in emerald and ruby-hued chutneys with bright-white streaks of yogurt. But the other exemplified the type of hybrid Indian-Gulf Coast cooking that is coming to define this new restaurant from chef and owner Anita Jaisinghani: a Texas shrimp chaat that held verdant triangles of avocado and golden kernels of corn amidst the crunchy bits of sev.
The dining room was busy even on an otherwise quiet Tuesday night, dishes clattering off the line and conversations bubbling up all around us, creating an oddly intimate feeling in the high-ceilinged space. Sounds bounced off the bare concrete floors and walls and the cubist steel and glass windows, the volume muffled only slightly by the voluptuous, saffron-colored curtains that separate the small bar from the dining room.
2800 Kirby Drive, B132
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Sundays.
Kachumber salad: $5
Texas shrimp chaat: $10
Paneer-stuffed chicken legs: $15
Lamb mint burger: $12
Paneer veggie frankie: $9
French toast: $7
Morning thali: $12
SLIDESHOW: Perfection at Pondicheri: Indian Meets Gulf Coast Cuisine
BLOG POST: Pondicheri: The Best New Restaurant of the Year
2800 Kirby, ste. B132, 713-522-2022
Watching over everything — and expediting each dish personally — was Jaisinghani. She's a constant and powerful presence here in her second establishment, Pondicheri, a little sister to Indika, the restaurant that changed the way Indian food was perceived in Houston for good.
"This may be the best Indian restaurant in the country," Robb Walsh once wrote of Indika. Part of the reason? Jaisinghani has the benefit of a Texan tolerance for spicier foods. "In New York and San Francisco, innovative Indian chefs have to please wimpy local tastes," he wrote. "But here in jalapeño-happy Houston, Indika's fabulous, fiery Indian cooking is truly appreciated." And appreciated it was. Indika received the Houston Press Best of Houston® award for Best Indian Restaurant for many years in a row.
But with her new place, Jaisinghani has a slightly different aim. She's focusing almost exclusively on Indian street food and snacks like chaat, modernizing them and adding her singular Texan bent — at reasonable prices, to boot.
The chaat that night had an almost Southwestern flavor profile, using cumin-rubbed Gulf shrimp as a briny, spicy contrast to the buttery avocado and sweet roasted corn.
Texas was present in many dishes I tried at Pondicheri, across many other visits. The black drum fresh from the Gulf gets dressed up with warm chile powder and mango, a tangy raita setting it all off. And The Texan, a breakfast dish served with a bowl of beef korma, has the unmistakable flavor of chorizo, if chorizo were made with beef.
Underneath it all are elements that aren't found anywhere else, things that Jaisinghani is concocting in her in-house "bake lab." Take, for example, the papdi chaat filled with puffed lentil dumplings — made fresh at Pondicheri — in place of standard, staid papri wafers. The crispy house-made dumplings make all the difference in that dish, cozied amidst the traditional potatoes and chutneys, flavors mingling but each ringing as clear as a bell: tamarind, mint, cumin, a tart bite of yogurt.
Those modern flavors and Pondicheri's breezy accessibility are what keeps me coming back to the restaurant over and over again. This delicious food, served in a beautiful setting, is breaking down barriers and redefining what Indian food can be.
It is, quite simply, the best new restaurant of the year.
Indian food is particularly well-suited to the Houstonian palate. New Delhi and Houston might as well be climate twins, and the food that tastes so good during hot and sticky weather over there does the trick over here, too.
Take the kachumber salad, for instance: diced chunks of cool cucumber tossed with mango and crushed peanuts in place of onion and tomatoes. It's a salad that's more suited to our subtropical weather, healthy and light and still deeply infused with flavor. Ditto the to-go Nightingales: Each flaky pastry resembles a sturdy meat pie, crimped at the edges. It's only $3, and the ingredients — spinach and cauliflower is my favorite so far — change with Jaisinghani's whims. Perched next to the cash register, the pastries almost demand to be picked up for a quick, agile meal.
Pondicheri stays open seven days a week, nearly all day. Yes, during the lull between lunch and dinner, it serves only tea, coffee and pastries, but it's a charmingly elegant and civil answer to what most restaurants of this caliber would do instead: close.
And at breakfast and lunch, cost and time are trimmed considerably with friendly, casual counter service. It's particularly perfect for takeaway at lunch or a low-key breakfast spent in the sunny dining room under those vast windows.
Weekend breakfast is an ideal time to enjoy the sun-soaked interior on a leisurely schedule, but it's also a terrific way to introduce Indian food to the neophytes among us. Order the French toast, thick and eggy and covered with berries. It seems straightforward, until you realize that the syrup is in fact jaggery — a type of South Asian sugarcane — cooked down with cardamom and cinnamon. Anyone who tastes this stuff is going to want more. That jaggery syrup is a gateway drug to the dazzling array of flavors in Indian cuisine.