Before moving to India in 2010, my search for the perfect Indian restaurant, in North America and Europe and anywhere else Indian expats were numerous, was a constant. Now, when I travel outside India, my culinary quests are inverted; I never search for Indian while traveling. But Pete Wells makes me think I should rethink next time I am in New York City:
“This is the first place you’ve taken me where I’d come back and spend my own money,” a friend said in the middle of lunch at Pondicheri. He is highly sensitive to pretension and unjustified expense, so whenever I take him along on one of my hunting parties, I try to pick something with a high ratio of flavor to price. At Pondicheri, I finally hit his sweet spot.
By that time, I was sure I’d be back, too. The chef and owner, Anita Jaisinghani, chose New York as the first site of a string of all-day Indian cafes she hopes to open around the country, modeled on her original Pondicheri in Houston. She also has a more formal Indian restaurant there called Indika, but if she brought that to Manhattan, she would have to compete with such restaurants as Paowalla, Tamarind Tribeca and Indian Accent. There isn’t anything in the city quite like Pondicheri.
A few blocks north of the Flatiron Building, it inhabits a space so cavernous that maps may be useful. (It wasn’t until my fourth meal that I discovered a corner table hidden behind a wall all the way in the back of the restaurant.) The sheer number of seats is one of the things that makes it worth keeping in mind, because Pondicheri would work for so many occasions.
When I wanted to have breakfast alone, I’d go to the front counter and ask for a cup of masala chai. Pondicheri makes it smooth and strong, with more than a whisper of spice. Then I’d find a table where I could eat the wonderful aloo paratha with my hands, loving the way the crisp shell collided with the soft potatoes inside, feeling the mustard oil rake the back of my throat, licking the ghee from my fingers. Or I might get the masala eggs, firmly scrambled with fennel, onions, peppers and spices, and then spread out over a wedge of spiced carrot paratha.
For a morning meeting with people who’d never seen me lick ghee off my fingers, I’d probably point to a few things behind the glass pastry cases — whatever looked good that day. I’d hope for a return of the fig cake I had last week, essentially fig preserves baked into a muffin top.
And I’d keep an eye out for the honey mesquite cake, which is delicate with almond and mesquite flour, savory with ginger and other warm spices. Honey has been spritzed around, but the cake hasn’t been drenched in it. It’s a delicious example of Ms. Jaisinghani’s strategy of importing Indian flavors into American daily life.
The best time to take Pondicheri’s full measure is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when servers at the counter will take orders for either breakfast or lunch. Beet uttapam is technically a breakfast dish here. But this spongy, slightly tangy pancake topped with a fried egg makes a perfect lunch; it is served on a thali platter next to little metal cups holding a nice crunchy salad, some cilantro chutney and a turmeric soup that tastes as if it held the secret of eternal health. In the nonvegetarian version, another cup carries a small crumbly heap of lamb keema, very tasty stuff.
There are roti wraps called frankies, as well as salads and curries, like the chicken stewed in a tomato-tinged curry of unusual complexity. It’s named Chicken 25 after the number of seasonings in the curry, and it is worth asking for even though it sounds like a genetic engineering experiment. I liked this much more than the sayel lamb kofta, meatballs in a nondescript meat sauce…