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.
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.
You can order thalis at both dinner and breakfast. It's a highly recommended way to plunge headfirst into the breakfast menu here, as a thali contains a little bit of everything off the menu in addition to a soft paratha with a beautifully fried egg on top, frizzled edges looking like lace against the savory pancake beneath it. Break open the sunny yolk and let it coat the paratha, and you'll wonder why the ghee-laced flatbread isn't already more popular as a breakfast dish.
Even the smallest touches here resonate with intelligent design, demanding that like-minded restaurants step up and emulate these tiny details: A squirt bottle of simple syrup is available to sweeten your coffee or tea, instead of just plain granulated sugar that always sinks directly to the bottom. A fruit cup is lovingly composed of actual seasonal fruits — papaya, blueberries, plums, blackberries — instead of whitened, dried-out bits of melon. Basic yogurt with fruit is tinged with exotic, fragrant saffron. And the fat slices of toast served on the Texan platter at breakfast are alluringly fresh, crafted in-house just like everything else on the menu.
Eating at Pondicheri reminds me of something writer Lisa Fain recently wrote about Indian food on her blog, Homesick Texan.
"When I first moved to New York City and discovered that the Tex-Mex was seriously lacking in this town, I embraced Indian food," Fain wrote. "Now, if you're not familiar with Indian cuisine that may seem bizarre. But Indian cuisine is rich with ingredients familiar to Texans, such as cumin, chiles and cilantro."
One recent afternoon, I called ahead to order a paneer veggie frankie and a lamb mint burger for lunch, saving the frankie — Pondicheri's version of a wrap, using roti flatbread — for a reheated dinner. I snuck one of those Nightingales into my order upon arriving, along with an oatmeal chocolate-chili cookie from the restaurant's bake lab, which concocts ever-changing pastries and savory pies depending on the season.
It was this buying spree that led to me eating three straight meals from Pondicheri — and all of it for only $33. The lamb burger came with Desi fries and the frankie with a bowl of fresh fruit. The burger was so enormous and the lamb so filling that I could eat only half at lunch, with a handful of the thick-cut fries under a fine sprinkling of powder that tasted vaguely of Bisto Chip Shop Curry. The rest went down easily with dinner that night, along with the large frankie, which I split with a friend over cheesy reality TV in my apartment.
The masala vegetable filling inside was thickly studded with soft cubes of paneer cheese. And the roti shell was neither too thick nor too thin, holding the whole thing together like an Indian burrito. My friend wondered over the thing, Indian flavors thoroughly adapted to Texan tastes and even structures.
And for breakfast the next day, I pulled that fruit salad out of the fridge along with the Nightingale, warming it briefly in the microwave. A night in the refrigerator and a minute in the microwave had absolutely no ill effects on the crust, which remained as splendidly crispy and flaky as it had come straight from Pondicheri's ovens. I was astounded.
I feel that way after every meal at Pondicheri, though: astounded. I am astonished by the path that Jaisinghani is blazing in Houston, making Indian food into high art that's still highly accessible. It's this tactic that was responsible for Indika's massive success, and it will assuredly be even more popular at the more low-key Pondicheri, where bottles of Kingfisher beer clink over plates of samosas, chaat and the occasional Texas shrimp salad with fresh beets.