If I lived in Houston, an intervention would be required. That’s because I’d most certainly be addicted to the chocolate oatmeal chili cookies sold at “Bake Lab,” the innovative, irresistible bakery tucked into Pondicheri, Anita Jaisinghani’s sleek, urban Indian restaurant that recently earned a James Beard nomination for “Best New Restaurant.”
Thanks to her rich chocolate brownies, Jaisinghani amassed a following when she was Robert del Grande’s pastry chef at (now shuttered) Café Annie. At her first restaurant Indika, then Ponicheri, the chef let her childhood flavors sing. At “Bake Lab,” she melds traditional French pastry techniques with unexpected flavors (think saffron-scented brioche, herb and paneer-stuffed croissants, madeleines perfumed with coconut, rosemary, and spices).
The menu changes daily based on seasonal ingredients and “relentless experimentation, and musing moods,” she confesses. It’s just that sort of intensely personal cooking that catches my attention, so I asked her how it comes together.
How was Bake Lab born?
“It started about two years ago at Indika. I went through a bit of personal trauma, and I found that baking was a way to focus on something outside of myself. First I started making bread, and then I moved to pastries. I started trying things out on Indika’s brunch menu—I think people came to brunch to have the cookies and pastries! The runaway hits ended up at Bake Lab.”
What inspires you?
“I’m a very big worshipper of Nancy Silverton’s bread and pastry books ), and the Tartine cookbook from the bakery in San Francisco. Those two books really inspired me. It’s been so much fun to infuse classics like croissants with spices, herbs, cheese, and more.”
What irks you?
“The word fusion annoys the hell out of me. At both of my restaurants, the food is authentic but not traditional. Indian cuisine is a melding of so many influences, including British and Arab. There has been a melding of cuisines for the last 100 years, coupled with old philosophies about techniques. I prepare my dishes using very authentic techniques, how I sauté my onions or create my masalas, for instance, then after that there are no rules.”
You feature quotes from novelist Anuradha Roy on Pondicheri’s walls. Is there a connection between contemporary female Indian authors and bakers?
”Yes of course there is! The quotes are from The God of Small Things, my daughter and I chose them. Both the author and I are a product of very strong culture, so we share a similar mentality, whether we write books or prepare food. That translates to a certain grounded, practical, and pragmatic way to be. Indian women are very independent. When I go back to India I am always surprised at how liberated the thinking has become. I have become almost too traditional after living in the States!”
Many of your breakfast items showcase spiced vegetables. How does that go over in Houston, the land of belt busting ribeyes?
“Why does it all have to be fat, meat, and eggs? I grew up in the south of India, where we love vegetables and eat them around the clock, so I’m trying to incorporate more of them into morning menu. My version of a breakfast taco is a roti wrap filled with masala eggs and cilantro chutney, and I serve a Power Scones made with rye flour, rye berries, beets, carrots, and onions.”
What Southern bakery are you addicted to?