Parts of Pondicheri’s menu seem like they could only be a breakthrough hit or a disaster. Replace the fried dough wafers in a papdi chaat with semolina crackers and you get either a healthier, hipper version of the original, or a mealy multigrain imposter. Adding a pumpkin bun to the black garbanzo bean veggie burger could be a stroke of genius or a mark of overzealous experimentation. Luckily, the chefs at Pondicheri are serious about their fusion cooking. With influences from French bakeries to South America’s produce, Pondicheri is all about laid-back twists on Indian favorites. Though the curries and other classics can be underwhelming, the attention paid to innovations like the masala burgers and Madras chicken wings make Pondicheri well worth a visit.
Known as a great breakfast spot around River Oaks, Pondicheri keeps many of its best dishes off the dinner menu. The green dosas, omelets and aloo paratha with house-made jam are all great alternatives to the diner food and breakfast tacos that form the usual Houstonian breakfast. The bake lab offers the best of Pondicheri’s French influence in its pastries. The chocolate brioche bun rolled in orange saffron sugar and the gulab jamun donut spiced with mace, cinnamon and cardamom and soaked in a cardamom-rosewater syrup highlight what may be one of the most inventive bakery menus in Houston.
The lunch and dinner menus are just as inventive, but a bit uneven. Pondicheri’s strength lies in their fusion dishes. The semolina papdi chaat is as refreshing as the Indian original, and the addition of tamarind lends a sweet and spicy element to the traditionally tangy dish. The lamb mint burger, quite possibly the best item on the menu, is a delicious blend of Indian, American and French conventions. The lamb patty is served with an Indian version of pub cheese atop a brioche bun with cilantro chutney and onion masala spread. Throughout the fusion dishes, Pondicheri’s broad influences and love of casual Indian harmonize into a peculiar and wonderful homage to Indian street food. In the more traditional curries, however, some dishes miss out on Pondicheri’s anything-goes attitude. The lamb curry, served with an overabundance of parsley and drab chunks of carrot and potato, seems especially plain compared to the rest of the menu. Still, other curries like the
goat kofta, which pairs spicy goat meatballs with ginger, papaya and almonds, have all the exotic allure of Pondicheri’s best cooking.
An added feature of Pondicheri’s lunch and dinner experience is the smart and concise drink menu. Sangrias and shandies are served with a number of unexpected ingredients ranging from hibiscus and lavender in the sparkling rosé Whist to the ghost peppers and black salt in the Hot Stuff shandy. The Lovely Leech is a particularly elegant blend of Chardonnay, lychee, pear and apple juice available by the glass or pitcher. The eclectic wine list focuses on unoaked whites and fruity reds that pair well with the spice and earthiness of Indian cooking. The Ernest Loosen Gewurztraminer, with exotic notes of rose and lychee, and the clean and crisp Merry Edward’s Sauvignon Blanc, are both exceptional wines that pair well with a number of Pondicheri’s lighter offerings. The non-alcoholic drink menu is equally extensive and interesting. Hibiscus soda, mint lemonade, lassis and teas are all made in house and complement the food nicely.
With such a comprehensive and ambitious menu, dining at Pondicheri feels far more like an experience than meals at Houston’s other causal fusion restaurants. But while it does aim higher than many of its peers, Pondicheri never feels overly formal or frustratingly hip. Instead, it is the best of both worlds: a relaxed vibe, a moderate price and food that’s fun, exciting and, above all, tasty.