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During the Eighties and Nineties, Anita Jaisinghani moved from India to Canada to Texas as a trained microbiologist and eventually a mother of two. In 2001, after a labs-to-loaves transitional stint as a pastry chef at Café Annie in Houston, she opened Indika, the more upscale of her two revered tandoori-Texan restaurants. The other, Pondicheri, opened in 2011, shifting the cuisine’s register to street-level. Those two restaurants earned her two James Beard nominations, and with the debut of her first New York outpost this August — also called Pondicheri — she’s set the blueprint for an empire.
Jaisinghani’s Manhattan location, managed by her daughter, Ajna Jai, is a gaping industrial warehouse of a restaurant. At five thousand square feet, it feels like one of the only interiors in the city that isn’t fundamentally cramped. The decorating team has attempted to soften the size with detail: delicately tiled floors, deep ocean-hued walls, rustic stools, and bright individual bulbs. None of this ultimately recasts its essential cafeteria vibe. But this cafeteria is open from seven in the morning to ten at night, and it’s the fabulous cooking that will beckon you inside, not the architectural charm (or lack thereof).
At breakfast, the runaway favorite is the masala eggs: a three-egg scramble, heavily spiced, lightened with celery and red pepper, and served with a carrot paratha ($9). The Pondicheri take on a pancake breakfast is a fragrant, cardamom-laced rice-and-almond patty topped with berries and bananas and jaggery syrup (an unrefined cane sugar popular in South Asia). A flexible and various menu of cage-free farm egg dishes is cheap and can be topped with simple avocado or rich lamb.
When the breakfast menu flips to lunch, at eleven, perhaps the most glittering addition is the “Frankies” section, where egg-washed rotis hold either mushrooms ($8) or chicken ($10), both extravagantly seasoned. If this feels too heavy (the Frankies — a/k/a “Mumbai burritos” — are indeed greasy, but intelligently so: zesty and thick and designed to satisfy a big midday appetite), turn to the extensive salad menu, full of berries and grains and colorful dressings. If it doesn’t feel heavy enough, add Desi fries: wonderful curly fries coated in crispy flaky chickpea flour and a chaat masala spice mix.
While the counter handles most of the daytime orders, dinner service is table-oriented and more formal. The menu undergoes its second daily transformation and expands to include completely unpredictable starters (chickpea pinwheels stuffed with coconut and cashews and more), generous sharing plates (“Chicken 25,” cooked in that many spices), Jaisinghani’s renowned “thalis,” or sampling platters ($18-$30), and cast-iron skillets full of chutneys and stews. On the restaurant’s environment-conscious “Meatless Mondays,” a vegetarian dinner menu features thick, slurpable peanut noodles and a gorgeous white poppy seed biryani. Meanwhile, a wide range of sweets (try the Texan Mesquite Pecan Cookie), sides (try the pistachio-apricot naan), and drinks (from turmeric tea to twelve-year-old scotch) will fill up any room you have left on the table.
Because it’s so large and lit up, Pondicheri is not really your typical “date spot,” strictly speaking, unless you and your date want to wrap curly fries around each other’s fingers and smear each other with ghee, in which case you’ll find this place invigorating and really tasty too. In the meantime, anyone else, wandering around the Flatiron district at any time of day, will find something to savor here. Pondicheri argues that each meal can be approached with care and invention, and that no snack, however small, need be bland. This is food that has a kind of rambunctiousness to it: It’s made with fresh, quality ingredients, but it’s not droopy-healthy; it champions flavor over fuss, joy and color over polish and restraint; it’s oily when it needs to be, and the oils are nutty and fine; and most of all it’s fluent within its own vocabulary of spices, a language you’ll love learning.
15 West 27th Street