A ‘French-Colonial,’ SpicedWith Merchant and Mysticism

If you were solving a crossword puzzle that asked you to name a major foreign power that has influenced Indian cuisine, you would not think of France. But Pondicherry, a new restaurant named after a coastal town in southern India, bills itself as serving French colonial cuisine, not only from India but from North Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean, too.

The other night, when I arrived at the restaurant with some friends, the door was opened not by an Indian but by a tall, affable young Russian in an impressive greatcoat that would have stood him in good stead in a Moscow winter.

I know very little about the town of Pondicherry, so before I went to the restaurant I did some research in the library. There was not a great deal of material available. The town was colonized by the French during the 17th century and at various times in the 18th century by the British. In the early 20th century, Sri Aurobindo Ghope (1872-1950), a Hindu who had been educated in England, was imprisoned by the British for terrorism. In jail, he became a mystic and eventually fled to Pondicherry, which was then under French rule, where he established an ashram that still attracts millions of people from all over the world. In fact, as we looked at the menu, one of my friends revealed that not only had she been to Pondicherry, she had actually stayed in the ashram.

“I had mixed feelings about it,” she recalled. “The ‘seekers’ would have their simple breakfast of organic chapatis, and the beggars would wait outside and pick up the scraps that were tossed out. The rich Westerners and Indians who came there could have fed half the state. I also got a little tired of the signs around the place that said things like ‘A clean room is the closest thing to a clean spirit.'”

Clean as it certainly is, the restaurant is nothing like an ashram. It is in a basement down a sleek, cream-colored marble staircase, along with a pleasant bar and lounge, decorated with raffia and wicker chairs, marble floors and palms. The tropical atmosphere extends to the pale, airy dining room beyond, which has low lighting and discreet silk-screens on the walls. It feels chic and international, like a restaurant in a fancy modern hotel. (The ubiquitous Gypsy Kings on the music system added to this sensation.)

The executive chef at Pondicherry, Jean-Luc Kieffer, is from Alsace by way of Puerto Rico and Santa Fe. Adding further spice to this mix, film producer Ismail Merchant is a consultant to the restaurant, and several dishes on the menu bear his name. Mr. Kieffer’s cooking is grounded in classic technique, but he makes use of the full spectrum of exotic spices, tropical fruits and vegetables-among them kaffir lime leaves, yucca, achiote, plantains, jicama, papaya and tamarind. He is hardly the first chef in town to do this, but some of his dishes are extremely good. A couple of my favorites are actually Vietnamese in origin. Spring rolls were stuffed with an unusual mixture of crab meat and duck confit with saffron cilantro mousseline and orange-chile dipping sauce. (It sounds like a cacophony of flavors, but it worked.) Juicy shrimp glazed on a sugar cane were served with taro root pancakes and a sauce scented with fenugreek.

I’m not usually wild about monkfish, but Mr. Kieffer’s West African escabeche, made with chilled, moist medallions and served with crisp plantain chips, was excellent, as were the mussels, steamed in a spicy red curry broth with coconut milk. Carpaccio of beef rubbed with Moroccan spices was more successful than the gravlax with mint and green papaya shavings, which I found a little bland.

Our conversation had moved from the ashram to mystics in general, and after finally coming up with the name of the Beatles’ guru (Maharaj Ji), my friend said, “My favorite mystic is Meher Baba.” He was working his way through Mr. Kieffer’s colonial version of bouillabaisse, a robust combination of red snapper and seafood simmered in a deep broth with yucca, potatoes, tomatoes and fennel. “He took a vow of not speaking for 40 years. There is a wonderful picture of him with Tallulah Bankhead, staring at her and pointing to letters. The burning look in his eyes was one of the most intensely sexy you have ever seen.”

As I ate pink slices of duck magret glazed with honey and coriander, I tried to imagine that unlikely encounter.

“Did you know that ‘Begin the Beguine’ was Meher Baba’s favorite song?” he added. His wife passed around some codfish, which had been delicately poached in white wine scented with lemongrass. Meanwhile, my husband pronounced the roast chicken he was eating, which was stuffed with, of all things, gingerbread and winter vegetables, one of the best he had ever tasted.

Ismail Merchant’s dishes-shrimp with mustard and dill, and chicken in coconut sauce-are listed in a separate column on the menu. On another evening, one of my friends tried the chicken biryani (to be shared with “someone special”) pleasantly spiced with chilis and saffron.

“Do you think it is better to love or be loved?” he asked as he speared his fork into a piece of chicken. He found the rice a bit dry and the food rather awkwardly heaped up in the bowl, making the dish difficult to eat. It came, however, with wonderful flaky Indian flat bread.

Desserts included Mr. Merchant’s lovely almond-pistachio pudding, a rich chocolate passion-fruit mousse cake, a ginger coconut crème caramel that was a bit too solidified, and hot Tahitian pineapple with coconut ice cream.

Next door to Pondicherry is one of the few remaining cinemas in New York that has not succumbed to blockbusters but continues to show serious foreign films. So it may be possible of an evening to see the latest Merchant-Ivory production and come down to a dinner that continues the style of the film: dignified and well made, richly detailed and executed with flair.

Pondicherry

* *

8 West 58th Street

750-7474

Dress: Business

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Short and straightforward

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $12 to $22, dinner main courses $16 to $24

Lunch: Daily noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Daily 5:30 P.M. to midnight

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No star: Poor

A ‘French-Colonial,’ SpicedWith Merchant and Mysticism