There are two things that I associate with Indian restaurants: An enchanting smell of spices and an overly eager host practically forcing me to eat at his restaurant. At Pongal, there were hints of both.
Pongal, one of the many Indian restaurants along Lexington Avenue between 24th and 30th street is known for its all vegetarian and kosher menu. The name refers to the harvest fest, which in South India is celebrated along with the withdrawal of the southeast monsoons. But at this Pongal, a South Indian party felt far, far away.
Pongal does have the potential to be a cozy dinner place. The stylish décor and mostly mellow Indian music, combined with the dimmed lighting, is definitely an environment that could feel good on a dark chilly evening. But at noon on a bright sunny day, the quiet and dim surrounding felt more awkward.
The good thing with Pongal is its broad menu of lunch specials. For less than 8 dollars you can get one of their many Thali’s, which are like sampling platters of many different dishes. Besides the more traditional Indian dishes of curries and vegetable-stews served with rice ($9.95), the restaurant also offers a large variety of South Indian specialties, Dosa’s and Utthappam’s ($8.45-9.45). Made of the same lentil and flour-based dough, Dosa’s are thin crepes while Uttahppam are thicker pancakes. These two are then filled or topped with a variety of vegetables.
Overwhelmed by the different Thali’s with dishes that you never heard of, I decided to ask the waiter for some help. I got a quick explanation of some of the dishes, but more than this, I was told what I should order. When I decided to go for the Mini Thali ($6.95), the waiter shaked his head. He persisted to explain why the one-dollar more expensive Pongal Thali, was the right choice for me. The part that bothered me in this act was not the price difference, but why I was refused to order an almost identical dish, but with one less item. I accept the fact that Indian’s like to talk you over to get you into their restaurant, but when it comes to my food, I want to order for myself.
The food itself did go in line with the overall ambiance of Pongal – a good try but not quite there. The first thing that crossed my mind when the Pongal Thali ($7.95) was placed in front of me was that it just looked like a big mix of differently shaped dough. And as it turned out, this was exactly what it was.
The Medu Vada, a fried doughnut, was quite tasty for the first few bites, but became boring in lack of spices other then the fried oil. Then there was the Idly, a total opposite, shaped like a white “cake” of dough that looked and tasted more like stale infant porridge. The highlight of the dish was the Dosa filled with potato and onions. It had a good bite to it, crisp and warm just like you expect a crêpe to be. The filling of potato and onion was OK, but lacked flavor. And with all the dough-y items in front of me, I could not help missing vegetables to lighten up the meal. The three sauces that came with the Thali did not either bring that Indian-kick that my taste buds kept longing for. I was left with one big question – where were the spices?
Being one of my favorite Indian dishes, I had big hopes for the Palak Paneer, cottage cheese cubes in a creamy spinach sauce ($9.95). But again, my excitement did not last. The color itself was already revealing it’s taste – instead of a fresh green color it looked more like pure cream. The cheese was good and not too soft, but combined with the overly creamy base, the dish became hard to enjoy. The brightest moment at this harvest fest was definitely the “Mango Lassi” ($4.45). This rich yogurt drink had the perfect amount of sweetness, and a smooth cooling texture. But after all that dough, I only wished it had came in a take away cup…