With its colorful, industrial elements and floor-to-ceiling glass garage doors taking the place of windows or walls, it's a shame Pondicheri doesn't face out to a busy thoroughfare from its space inside West Ave.
As it is, when you're sitting in the airy, casually stylish space, sharing the impressive contemporary Indian dishes between pieces of naan, the empty "streets" that surround Pondicheri are the only reminder that you're still in Houston, not removed to a hot corner café in New York or San Francisco.
Owner Anita Jaisinghani, who reinvented Indian haute cuisine 10 years ago at Indika, has traded in the white tablecloths for reclaimed wood tabletops with aluminum accents and replaced fusion menus with a focus on Indian street food.
We started with a duo of small dishes. The papdi chaat was a messy (but worth it) mixture of semolina crackers, potatoes, sprouts, and lentil dumplings that tasted like a fresh version of a coriander-mint chutney brought to life in three dimensions. I also liked the saag paneer samosas, a lighter, flakier take on a classic that can sometimes feel dense. The saag paneer itself was decent but upstaged by the brash tomato kasundi chutney served with it.
My favorite part of the meal was when the "non-vegetable" entrees arrived, served in stainless steel bowls and just begging for a piece of naan. The nihari, slow-simmered beef shank and oxtails were predictably rich and tender, with a thick gravy that was incredibly filling, if not as spicy as advertised. It was only topped by the kerala shrimp, which brought the heat I craved in a thinner sauce that mixed the tang of the shrimp with a little ginger, sweet coconut and and a tomato curry base.
I also enjoyed the gobi masala, (cauliflower simmered with tomato and ginger and served dry) but I wasn't a fan of the other chutneys I tried, the eggplant pickle (too bitter) or the tamarind date (too sweet).
I would be remiss not to also mention the seasonal sangria blends, starting with a "Lovely Leech," a blend of lychee and some citrus that I can't quite recall. The Shandy, or beer mixed with an Indian lemon/lime soda and a sprig of mint was another refreshing surprise.
The tastes will be familiar to most diners, but the simplicity of the presentation (as well as the complex flavor combinations) feels new and exciting. Pondicheri feels bold and sexy, a distinctly American enmeshing of high design and family-style comfort food, but executed with a pitch-perfect Indian accent as only Jaisinghani could.