Anita Jaisinghani has been bringing her own brand of Indian food to Houston with her restaurants Indika, Pondicheri and Pondicheri Bake Lab + Shop. Now she’s taking her flavors to New York, where she’ll open an outpost of Pondicheri in the coming months, and increasingly turning her attention to making food that makes people feel good as much as it tastes good.
“I want to be part of the restaurant wave that thinks more about food as a lifestyle than pleasure. I mean food is always pleasure but I want to make the kind of food that makes me feel good,” she said. “What you eat is very important and I think a lot of the culture in America is about eating food where the sensation of pleasure stops at the neck -- what’s pleasing to the tongue and not really for the stomach or for the body.”
We caught up with Jaisinghani to talk about Pondicheri New York, her pop-up dinners series, and how studying Ayurvedic principles is influencing her food.
Tell me about the decision to open in New York.
When I opened Pondicheri, I always wanted to do more around the country. I had places like Austin and Chicago and other cities. New York was not one of them. When when we started to think about expanding, we did go to Austin and I spent about a year looking at properties there and somehow nothing quite fit my needs there. I just had trouble with Austin so I stopped thinking about for it for a while. And then somehow the New York idea came back up and my daughter lives in New York, which made it a lot easier. I had somebody kind of boots on the ground that was looking at locations, meeting with realtors so she helped me and here we are.
How will the New York and Houston restaurants differ?
Because it’s New York and that neighborhood is rapidly changing to a very hipster kind of location ... It used to be a working class neighborhood only with little tiny shops around and it’s just transforming month by month. Given what it is now, we decided to make the dinner part a little more upscale. The lunch and breakfast is going to be counter service. We’ve split the menu in two rather than having the same menu morning and night. I don’t want to put the menu out yet but it’s basically my years of cooking and living and evolving into something new. We’re very excited about it.
How are you incorporating Ayurveda into your dishes?
Ayurveda is a philosophy on life and the main philosophy of Ayurveda is balance -- how to balance your life. It’s not just food; it’s how you talk, how you behave and obviously the food part is our biggest part. I’ve examined all the rules of Ayurveda and we are not going to follow all of them. We’re going to follow the ones that we can given the premise we’re working under. For example, Ayurveda doesn’t say not to eat meat, but eat meat in smaller portions. So then when we have meat on our plate, we are trying to surround it with enough vegetables and other foods so your meat doesn’t become the center of the plate. So you’re kind of taking it off the center of the plate and making it one of the tastings of what you’re eating but it’s not all you’re going to eat. Really, I’m just trying to take the focus away from meat but not not cook the meat, you know what I’m saying? We have plenty of meat on the menu but we also have plenty of vegetables on the menu.
Your Alexander The Great pop-up dinners explore India’s influence on Greek cuisine. Tell me about those.
One of our main cooks, Mary [Cuclis], who has been with me since day one, is half Greek and we began to kind of play with the idea. We can always do specials but I said, why don’t we root it in some kind of history? And we began to do the history of spices. We realized that spices from India have moved all over the world. So we’re going to actually start a whole series in about a month or so. We’re calling it our Spice Trade Series where we’re going to have dinners that we cook on the weekends, very casual kind of food. We have a staff of almost 50 people and they’re all from different parts of the world and every one of them, whether they’re from Mexico or from Italy or from Philippines, everyone has been influenced somehow by spices so we’re trying to just look at that and how they use spices. This dinner was really done because she knows Greek food and we thought, okay, let’s branch out a little and do something more interesting. The next one is actually on Mumbai street food so it’ll be more like summer food.
How has the Houston food scene changed since you arrived?
Houston has changed tremendously since I arrived. I’ve been here more than 20 years. There is so much more ethnic food and so much great ethnic food, so I think Houston has a tremendous food scene. I think big cities kind of can get by because ... there are so many visitors to New York that people will eat food there and eat it because it’s the only thing that they find, but I don’t think New York is as competitive as Houston. It’s just the sheer volume of people that go through that city. Houston definitely can stand up to other big cities around the country and I’ve spent so much time in New York, I can seriously say that. Houston is just so down south and it’s considered another planet I think. I don’t think Houston gets the credit it deserves in food.
It’s starting to ...
Yeah, it is, but it’s still not what it should be.
To the newbie, what places would you recommend for Indian food?
Just go down Hillcroft and pop into any store and eat something from the stands or the cases. It’s much more the traditional Indian food that we don’t do. There’s actually a place on the west side, near Sugarland, called Savoy. It’s more like Pakistani food than Indian. We love that food. And then there’s another Pakistani place on Harwin. It’s called Bismillah. I like that too. And then Himalaya is good. As far as vegetarian goes, there’s a place called Balaji Bhavan that does really good dosas on Hillcroft as well. And then there are stores: you can walk into Raja Sweets or Bombay Sweets and try the street foods and the sweets there. There’s plenty to try for Indian food before you actually jump into eating a whole meal at a restaurant.