Pongal: The Gem of Curry Hill
Do you know the sweet anticipation of waiting for a crepe? The pleasure of watching a smiling man, possibly sporting a beret, expertly ladle and spread that sticky batter into a perfect circle? Dim the soft Parisian lighting. Pop the champagne. Cue the … sitar? Hold on, where am I? And why is that crepe over a foot long and filled with potatoes?
Pongal. We’re at Pongal and we’re here for dosa, a South Indian crepe full of wonders. Pongal is a little gem you can find in the heart of Curry Hill in Manhattan, on the corner of 27th Street and Lexington Avenue. Founded in 1996, this restaurant has managed to stand out in a sea of other South and North Indian eateries. It is certified Kosher, which has certainly upped its value, and entirely vegetarian, which appeals to a new generation of environmentally conscious people. Most importantly, however, it is delicious, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
We walk back and forth on Lexington for a few minutes, between 27th and 28th, missing Pongal. The rusty maroon colored awning blends in so completely with its surrounding reddish brown neighbors that we wonder why first-time patrons choose Pongal at all. When we finally do swing open the door, we are greeted by two very quirky objects: a thick indigo curtain to protect diners from the chilly air and a three-by-eight foot blue plastic cow. To those unfamiliar with Hinduism, the latter probably sounds as foreign as having a rubber duck at the entrance of a fancy steakhouse. But the cow is actually a model of Lord Krishna’s holy cow, Nandini.
Yes, the writer of this article shares a name with that cow. Be jealous.
But, cows aside, the inside of Pongal is a warm, comfortable shade of maroon. The walls are brick, which is a happy accident considering the recent hipster brick revival. The restaurant is neither stunning nor grimy. It does, however, have one other striking feature that we have to mention. On the back wall is mounted a giant bronze sun with a floor to ceiling neon red bar striking through it. Though the sun is the Hindu symbol Surya and fits with the restaurant’s theme, we are not too sure what to make of the neon flash. Maybe Pongal wants to bring in a younger crowd with club lighting, but it seems a little out of place. Fortunately, we don’t get to dwell on this oddity for too long because the attentive servers come to our table almost immediately after we are seated.
The service at Pongal is, dare we say it, perfect. It’s heavy praise, we know, but the folks at this place are so polite that they truly deserve it. The man who served us was mild-mannered and just present enough. There is nothing worse than someone who lingers around your table, watching you, refilling your water every time you take a sip. The people at Pongal seem to appear just when you need them and never rush you. They also deserve a high rating because they are the ones who arrive at your table with giant thaalis of long, golden brown dosas, bowls of sambhar, dishes of iddlys, and glasses of cold mango lassis.
When it comes to visually gratifying foods, dosa is at the top of the list. It is large. It is shiny. It is accompanied by brightly colored chutneys. This food appeals to the perpetually hungry kid in us, seeking out the most impressive meal to satisfy our tummies. The great thing about dosa is that it is as delicious as it looks. All dosa is made from a lentil and rice batter, making it gluten-free. Pongal’s dosa is fragrant. It tastes slightly grainy in places, which gives it a home-made texture. Dosa is crispy and thin on the outer edges and becomes thicker and softer at its center. We ordered the masala dosa, which means the crepe is stuffed with spiced potatoes and onions. The potatoes were perfectly prepared with mustard seeds and turmeric, just flavorful enough to keep our attention on the fifteen-inch crepe in front of us. After dipping it in the sambar, coconut chutney, and tomato chutney, our favorite was definitely the sambar. Pongal’s sambar is a spicy, vegetable filled medley of South Indian flavors, a watery broth perfect for soaking a piece of dosa. The coconut chutney was disappointing, lacking in both zest and heat.
If you have any room left in your pants for more rice and lentil based dishes, get the iddly. We know, two fat rice-lentil cakes seem a little indulgent after polishing off a crepe longer than your summer skirt, but the Pongal iddly is one of the best we’ve had on Curry Hill. The round, white lovelies arrive with the same chutneys and sambar as the dosa, but taste entirely new with fresh, soft-as-a-cloud iddlys. They taste like the most aromatic Basmati you’ve ever had baked into a savory cake. They are also gluten-free.
Pongal serves the kind of food that is still relatively unknown to the western world, even a place like Manhattan. The world knows naan and saag paneer and even that questionable British dish, chicken tikka masala. But it hasn’t fallen in love with the delightfully simple dishes of South India – yet. Pongal can help with this love connection one dosa at a time.
We rate Pongal a solid 8 on the Silver Spork scale of delicious. The main dishes were truly satisfying and cheap (we spent $15 on dosa and iddlys combined)! The coconut chutney was disappointing, however, and those who know dosa know that coconut chutney can make or break a thaali. Still, make a trip to this Curry Hill staple to change the way you look at crepes forever.
Post and photo by Nandini Ahuja.