"Oh, good. There are other brown people here," my friend remarked with a laugh as we walked up to Pondicheri's front door one recent evening. "That's always a good sign."
Indeed, one of the things that first struck me when I heard about the new restaurant from Indika's Anita Jaisinghani was its location in the middle of River Oaks's swankiest new development. Pondicheri has a view onto Tootsie's entrance and valet parking that sweeps up Bentleys and fancy sports cars by the dozen.
I worried that the upper-crusty denizens of the area wouldn't venture into an Indian restaurant when their old cohort Robert Del Grande's newest restaurant is just steps away. I also worried that the restaurant wouldn't draw regular folks like my friend and me, folks who might be turned off by aggravations like the constant traffic on Kirby and valet parking.
Luckily, there's plenty of garage parking at Pondicheri. And the restaurant itself seems destined to draw all comers, with a starkly industrial yet cozy aesthetic that is a bit like an old metal dress form draped in radiant sari material. The menu, too, is simply too attractive to ignore.
Lush black drum from Texas waters cloaked in a warm haze of mango and chili powder, sweetened up even more with a creamy zing of raita. Sedona-red lamb stew, the dusky meat brightened with ginger and still more chili powder. A bright jumble of cucumbers, mango and finely chopped peanuts in a kachumber salad that may be the best dish in all of Houston for the coming summer. A simple salty lassi with rich notes of cumin humming through the tart beverage.
It was a meal fit for my earliest memory of Indika, eating there as a teenager with my parents when it was still in the little white "witch's house" on Memorial Drive. Every aspect of that meal is seared into me, as it was the first time I'd tasted Indian food that didn't hold back. Every spice, every vegetable, every bubble on the naan bread was pure and unalloyed by American temperance. This was not the Indian food I was accustomed to eating on lunchtime buffets around Houston. This was something whose heart shone through fully. It was also something that set my mouth ablaze and cemented my lifelong love of spicy food.
The food at Pondicheri didn't have that same fire, but I wouldn't expect it to. This is food that's embracing the tidepool of various ethnic cuisines that has formed in Houston: Indian first and foremost, but also deeply Gulf coast and with a few scattered British influences as well (naturally).
And while not all the food comes cheap at Pondicheri (which is fine, really, given its location and the local provenance of most of the ingredients), it's still a highly useful restaurant and one that you can enjoy thriftily as well. That amazing kachumber salad was only $4 and fed two of us. Three very large saag paneer-stuffed samosas were only $8. And a thali (which we didn't get) is $12.
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Main dishes are reasonably priced -- most in the $14 range -- but the cost adds up when you supplement them with rice and naan (not included with the main dishes). This is fairly standard, and both are worth the extra cost, especially the warmly-spiced long-grain rice. But it's something to watch out for nevertheless.
I did find myself vaguely wishing that Pondicheri had a better view out its windows than the rather soulless, manufactured cityscape of West Ave. But next time I'll just sit facing the resplendent interior and its careful contrast of metal and glass with rich saffron, turquoise, vermilion and jade. And next time I'm ordering that thali.