I’m ambivalent about describing the Pongal in Billerica — but only because the selfish foodie in me is reluctant to crowd myself out of an outstanding Indian restaurant that’s already mobbed at times.
Even to committed fans of Indian cuisine, the Pongal is a revelation: a light, airy, modern eatery whose cuisine moves in directions seldom seen in this country. American devotees of Indian food, to say nothing of novices, will find a few taste buds they never knew existed.
The Pongal’s strong following among Indian-Americans, the vast majority of guests every time I’ve visited, testifies to the food’s quality and authenticity. The parking lot routinely boasts a substantial number of out-of-state cars, suggesting that many are drawn from some distance.
Taking a cue from more expensive restaurants, the Pongal appears to work hard to get the small things right, creating a refined and special dining experience. Complimentary dosas, potato-filled crêpes, materialize at the table. Water glasses are assiduously refilled. The buffet table never seems to run low.
The focus on details extends to the accompaniments, which go a long way toward making the meal. For example, the breads — both traditional naan and layered whole-wheat paratha — are a distinct cut above average. The bread basket ($12) offered a delightful mix of sweet and savory flavors, served with unusual coconut and chili chutneys.
Similarly, the yogurt beverages known as lassis were exceptional. Bad experiences with, for instance, cloying strawberry versions have taught me to stick with mango, generally a can’t-miss option. But the Pongal’s lassi flavors were both original and good. The ginger lassi ($4) was potent, and remarkably true to the flavor of fresh ginger. Order the delicious rose lassi ($4) and you’ll swear someone had pureed flower petals into your drink.
Fortunately, the accoutrements don’t upstage the bountiful entrées. The Chettinad dishes, with an unusual blend of spices first brought together by the overseas traders of yore, were entirely new to me, but I’m glad I made their acquaintance. The chicken Chettinad ($14) was earthy yet sophisticated, unlike anything I’ve sampled elsewhere.
A particularly interesting wrinkle in the Pongal’s menu is the fusion of Indian and Chinese flavors, a pan-Asian approach reportedly more in keeping with what one finds in restaurants in modern India. The Manchurian-style dishes — I had baby corn as part of the buffet, but mixed vegetables are available as an entrée for $12 — are breaded and lightly fried. When dipped into Indian chutneys, these Chinese-inspired dishes take on entirely new flavors.
The daily lunch buffet frequently features dishes not found on the regular menu, adding variety to the dining experience.
Several buffet visits convinced me that some of the Pongal’s best options are the vegetarian entrées. The Madurai fried idli — diced lentil-and-rice cakes sauteed with onions in mild, dry spices — was delicious, somewhat akin to a rich couscous. The bhindi do pyaza, okra in a savory cream sauce, worked wonders with a vegetable I generally find unlovable.
About those crowds: The weekday buffet is advisable if possible, as the restaurant’s popularity can mean pandemonium at midday on the weekends. Diners averse to crowds and bustle would do well to steer clear of this experience.