Now, I realize that it's only just now June, just today. And that declaring something the best new restaurant of 2011 this early in the year is a risky proposition. But that's how much Pondicheri, the new restaurant from Anita Jaisinghani, has impressed me in its few months of operation.
Pondicheri aims to do what Indika did years ago: change the perception of Indian food in Houston. Until Indika, it didn't occur to most people that you could go out for a very nice meal in a very swanky setting...and eat Indian food. Indian food was relegated to buffets and down-home establishments like the ones that populate Hillcroft in the Mahatma Gandhi District. Jaisinghani changed all that with Indika, propelling Indian food forward at light speed with clever, creative, modern dishes that challenged the notion of Indian food as all saag paneer and tandoori chicken.
At Pondicheri, that modern edge is still present. And Indian street food is still very well represented. But there is more of a Texan thread winding through the menu here, a Gulf Coast flair that represents a new hybrid cuisine in a city that hasn't seen much "groundbreaking" cuisine in a good long while.
There are frustrations at Pondicheri, to be sure. Some of the recipes still need a little tweaking here and there: for example, the oatmeal chocolate-chili cookies I love so much are in desperate need of some salt, but I still can't help but admire the smart baked goods coming out of Pondicheri's "bake lab." (Lest anyone forget, Jaisinghani got her start in Houston as the pastry chef at Cafe Annie.) And that salt will come with time, I'm sure of it.
Meanwhile, I'm still impressed that a new restaurant is putting as much emphasis on its pastry program as Pondicheri does; you don't see that enough these days. There's also the issue of a difficult-to-access bar, something that I hope will soon be remedied with Pondicheri's new daily happy hour. (Suggestion: Don't lock the door to the bar area, thereby making people walk all the way around the corner to enter; leave it open. Done.)
Some folks have also been frustrated to see the menu change so often. A friend recently mentioned to me that she'd been three times in ten days and hadn't seen the same menu any of those times. Standards are sticking around, like the kachumber salad that's been solidly present since it opened, but you never know quite what else will make the menu that night at Pondicheri.
I can see how this might be perceived as a vacillation, an unwillingness to commit to a menu or a common theme. But the restaurant says itself on its website: "Menu might change due to seasonally available ingredients, relentless experimentation, and musing moods." And so as far as I'm concerned, this isn't a problem. I'd rather have whatever has inspired Jaisinghani that week than be disappointed not to see a dish I've already tried in the past. Onward and upward.
It's this exact sensibility, in fact, that endears Pondicheri to me. You get the sense that the restaurant is alive in every sense of the word, humming with ingenuity and creativity and at all times a vibrant expression of just how much Jaisinghani loves her native India and her adopted hometown of Houston. There's nothing here that doesn't come from the heart.
Read this week's cafe review to get a deeper sense of just what Pondicheri is -- leisurely breakfast hangout, afternoon tea spot, hip dinner destination, luxury bake shop, and convenient lunch stop is the shortest definition I can give. And while not many other places would be able to juggle all of these different directions at once, Pondicheri does it with aplomb and -- more importantly -- makes it all look like one, cohesive whole.
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That's what I call a great restaurant.
To see more photos from Pondicheri, check out our colorful slideshow.