The melting pot of Indian and French cuisine
This February, a new passion project by independent restaurateurs Taran Chadha, the founder of the original BlackSalt, and the team behind Sai Ying Pun wine bar Brut!, Camille Glass and George Kwok, will finally come to life (officially, at least; Pondi has been serving customers for a few months now). A marriage between Taran’s Indian heritage and Camille’s French roots, the team at Pondi have created a menu that beautifully ties together the flavours, techniques and ingredients used in Indian and French cuisines. Curiously, Pondi’s menu is driven by the selection of sherries that Camille has curated, the notes and characters of the sherries being the predominant factors in determining what ingredients are on the menu – possibly a first for Hong Kong.
If you’re in a bit of a hurry and trying to pick a place to eat, here’s all you’ll need to know about Pondi. They’ve been open since late last year, and you can experience this magical gem tucked away in a side street in Sai Ying Pun. Camille will excitedly greet you with bottles of her favourite sherries, like XECO Amontillado, with notes of bitter almond and savoury toffee, or González Byass Cristina Oloroso, with notes of dark chocolate, dried fruits and cigars. For natural wine lovers who are fond of Brut!, Camille has got you covered there too with wild and funky selections.
There are dishes like air-dried lamb loin with garden peas and a black cumin reduction, butter chicken liver terrine with mango relish and cucumber pickle, baby calamari with fino sherry, pancetta stuffing and pistachio. Even the most reclusive foodie – in my head, I’m imagining some guy who only orders food from Deliveroo – would be forced to sample these dishes never before heard of, served in a magical and intimate nook haunted pleasantly by the spirit of BlackSalt. Prices are a reasonable $300–500 per person. I promise you’ll be planning a trip back to Pondi before you even ask for the bill.
A lot of effort and a bit of serendipity
I distinctly remember sitting with a friend trying desperately to decide where to eat before the pangs of hunger finally overwhelmed our sense of rational judgement. If that happens, more often than not end we up at the closest fast food joint – not that it’s a problem, but just imagine it’s Friday night in Sai Ying Pun, and we’ve both set our sights on something more culinary forward. My friend sighed in exasperation as she realised that the restaurant suggestion she was about to make had recently shuttered its doors. “What was the place called?” I asked. “BlackSalt,” she replied. Little did she know that something perhaps more magical was about to take its place.
The inspiration behind Pondi is vividly clear. Pondicherry (now Puducherry after its return to India), a once small trading outpost built by the French in the late 17th century on the south-east coast of the Indian subcontinent, grew into a sizeable city where the French and Indian populations interacted over the past 350 years. Why the French? What were they doing in India? Not many people are aware of the true extent of the grasp of colonialism; almost all the major European colonial powers had their grubby hands in India and its neighbours – the Dutch in Ceylon, the Portuguese in Goa, the French in Puducherry and, most famously, the British in pretty much the rest of the subcontinent.
Scarred and forever changed by the now-vestigial European colonial powers that once dominated the globe, India has no shortage of colonial heritage, good and bad. But, for today, let’s temporarily set aside the terrible legacies of colonial rule and focus on arguably the only positive aspect of colonialism: incredible food. Today in Puducherry, there are weirdly wonderful dosa/crêpe hybrids stuffed with meat and cheese, tartines of all varieties, Pondicherrian fish assad curry and French bouillabaisse morphed into the turmeric-tinted meen puyabaise – both Creole-influenced dishes – and coffee. However, the dishes in Puducherry remain relatively true to their origins. The trio here felt that there was plenty of potential for development and exploration in French-Indian cuisine and, voila, Pondi was born.
By the people, for the people
It’s a labour of love by Taran, Camille and George that popped up seemingly overnight, but the origins of Pondi, truthfully, run far back. Fuk Sau Lane (福壽里), where the space is located, is where they met, back when Camille still ran the wine bar she started for Locofama and Taran was still at the helm of BlackSalt. Many late nights after service were spent talking about, well, everything food related, forging a bond over wine and cigarettes – a bond that turned into a partnership when Taran couldn’t bring himself to let go of the space that is now Pondi’s home, desperately needing something to fill its place. And, for Taran, Pondi is also the continuation of an homage towards a late mentor.
The process of starting Pondi coincided with the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests. In the midst of the fear and tyranny that ruled the streets, the trio wanted to create a space that served as a sanctuary, a haven for the people of Sai Ying Pun – away from the shouts, the sirens and the shots that rang out every day in the city, a space where people, for a brief moment, could let their guards down. With the help of designer Daniel Kamp, they’ve certainly succeeded in this.
The moment you turn off the main street onto Fuk Sau Lane, the noise of cars, the chatter of fast-paced pedestrians, the hum and rumbles of machinery all begin to disappear – it truly is a hidden oasis. The side street is one large, open terrace with restaurants on all sides, spilling out onto the pavement to create a single communal space. If you follow the soft yellow glow of the lights down to the end of the street, you’ll see Pondi nestled on the right.
Appearing seemingly straight out of the French Quarter of Puducherry, you are greeted by a light grey facade with white accents that opens up to a patio surrounded by potted plants and small clay lanterns, complete with a giant umbrella that opens to the long, carefree vines that dangle from the second-floor balcony over the entrance. Items of beautifully handcrafted furniture brought back from India are everywhere; in fact, the chairs, tables, handrails, doors and even the patio steps – using pieces of restored or reclaimed old timber – were made in Puducherry. The interior is a discreet symphony of muted greys, bright whites and deep brown; there’s no better place for French and Indian cooking to come together.
The Indian-French love child that never was is finally born
I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time doing research and reading up for this article, and there really isn’t a large overlap between Indian and French cooking. Like the various ethnic and religious “quarters” of Puducherry, Indian and French cuisines have, more or less, remained in their own neighbourhoods. So it’s only fitting that some of the most creative and brilliant minds in the culinary world have taken on the challenge in marrying the two vastly different cuisines. Taran, Camille and George sat down late one night, picked five dishes from their childhoods – and the menu at Pondi started from there.
Gougères with whipped goat’s cheese and anchovy sambal
Pondi’s menu is simple. Four starters – all vegetarian – with three signature dishes that most define the spirit of what the project embodies and two dishes each for meat, seafood and vegetables. And, of course, one incredible dessert. We started with the gougères ($85), light and airy puffs of choux pastry that Taran has made from egg. Buttery, soft, with a good crust, they paired well with the whipped goat’s cheese and anchovy sambal dip, which is their take on the classic French anchovy butter dip that usually accompanies crudités; the sambal is a nostalgic Himalayan flavour profile near and dear to Taran’s wife’s heart.
Left: whipped split pea lentils; right: walnuts on the half-shell
In quick succession, the rest of the starters were served. The whipped split pea lentils ($70) dish is Pondi’s take on hummus and Taran’s late night go-to snack of leftover cold dhal and bread. The “hummus” is whipped up like a French mayo with sunflower oil and served with caraway seed crisps that were inspired by feuille de brick, which is commonly used in savoury pastry.
Next was my favourite of the starters: walnuts on the half-shell ($75). It’s an ingenious visual play on the classic French dish of escargots. The half-dozen walnut half-shells are stuffed with cashew cheese and topped with walnuts and a smoked red pepper sauce, propped up gently on a bed of almond powder, mimicking the small metal trays used traditionally to serve escargots. The dish is a perfect example of how a super old-school French dish can be used to inspire the creation of something similar but completely different using Indian flavours and ingredients. Delicious.
Left: hung yoghurt croquettes; right: natural wines
Hung yoghurt croquettes ($115) with sunflower seeds, tamarind beets and pickled shallots was the fourth and final small dish. The croquettes were deep-fried to perfection, and the sweetness and acidity of the tamarind beets cut straight through the richness of the yoghurt croquettes. Again, we see elements of both Indian and French cooking and ingredients, particularly with the yoghurt, used widely in both cuisines.
This is the point where the sherry started flowing at our dinner. Sherry wine is the mistreated, neglected, red-headed stepchild of the wine family that still overwhelmingly dotes over the antiquated and stale establishment Grand Crus – and frowns upon the New World, natural wine and port. Thank God Camille had an epiphany when a friend creatively produced a joke between the city of Pondicherry and sherry, and she decided to adopt the fortified wine.
After painstakingly pairing, the trio chose the raw ingredients used in their dishes to match with different sherries. There is a selection (which will change from time to time) of four amazing sherries on the wine list, ranging from very dry to ones that taste like sugary Christmas pudding dusted with cocaine.
Baby calamari with pancetta stuffing, pistachios and fino sherry broth
I don’t want to downplay how good the starters/snacks were, but the signature main dishes were my personal favourites. They not only perfectly showed how two different cuisines should come together, but somehow also managed to make French and Indian cooking even more exciting. Camille’s (not-so-secret) favourite is the baby calamari ($150) with pancetta stuffing, pistachios and fino sherry broth. The roots of the dish run deep into Camille’s childhood food memories, a long-time favourite of hers that she served while working at her first restaurant in Paris. It’s a rustic but refined dish. The squid – once considered a trash fish – is stuffed whole atop sweet, sweet clams in a wonderfully savoury and bitter broth. The dish might be French, but in each bite you take, there are vivid notes of Indian cooking, from the fenugreek leaves to the spices in the stuffing. Don’t forget to also pair it with the XECO Fino, the same type of sherry used in the broth. And a final reminder: it’s a sin not to mop up the rest of the crispy pancetta and loose stuffing floating around in the broth, so getting the house-made flatbread with the calamari is non-negotiable.
Butter chicken liver terrine
Not many things are as explicitly defining of French and British-Indian cuisine as a thick section of butter chicken liver terrine ($135), served with a tangy mango relish and pickled cucumber. Hearty chunks of decadent butter chicken with pieces of creamy, fatty liver – it’s two great culinary cultures encased together in one meaty jelly. More you, say? Yes, please.
Air-dried lamb loin
The final signature dish is the air-dried lamb loin ($225) with garden peas, pomegranate and a black cumin reduction. Air-dried to intensify the flavour of the lamb, the dish is a symphony of tender and juicy meat, succulent fat and mouth-watering drippings. The lamb is meant to be a tribute to BlackSalt’s Lamb Rhapsody dish, however, it perfectly represents not only the continuation of BlackSalt in Pondi, but also the spirit of Brut! having a hand in the new project. BRUT!’s lamb rib with blackberry relish and shisho most accurately espouses the philosophy of bringing multiple culinary cultures together, and it can clearly be seen here. Roast lamb and minty peas from the Brits, raan (a whole roasted leg of lamb in Indian cuisine) and hints of the Levant from the pomegranate seeds – there are subtle reminders in each bite. Oh, and it’s a fantastic pairing with the Cristina Oloroso.
The wonderful Eton mess dessert
There’s one dessert on the menu – Eton mess ($TBC) – (not actually on the menu; just ask for dessert), and it’s a play on fresh fruit and cream. A clean, straightforward dish of hand-whipped fresh cream, lime zest and wafers on top of a bed of wonderfully fresh fruit. Nothing special, right? Wrong. Those deceptive “wafers” are actually dehydrated tea biscuits soaked in chai, and they will mess with your mind. Taran calls the wafers “Eton mess” after the eponymous British dessert, and believe me, you’ll want more of them. And, with that, the perfect end to a meal at Pondi.
There’s something special about Pondi. It’s one of those “you have to be here” experiences: you have to walk down the side street, follow the lights and smile when you see the little haven that Taran, Camille and George have set up just for you. It’s necessary to get lost in the world of tranquility and security around you while hedonistically indulging in exceptionally tasty food and wine before you understand what I’ve meant. The food conceptualised and created by this ingenious trio will stick around in your head (and in the pictures on your phone) for weeks or months to come as you contemplate, as I did, how the wonderful stage for Indian and French cooking did not exist before – and how glad you are that these three were the ones to first build it.
Stay tuned for Pondi’s soon-to-come brunch announcement.
14 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun, 6556 4253
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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