As a teenager, rising Seattle chef Preeti Agarwal — who owns the Vietnamese-French restaurant Pomerol in Fremont — usually earned a little friendly ribbing from her family for her culinary curiosity. Agarwal’s favorite food at the time was pineapple raita, an unconventional take on the standard Indian yogurt and cucumber condiment. “The acidity and the citrus side of pineapple makes the yogurt so well balanced,” she explains.
Those flavor elements serve as a palate-cleansing interlude at Agarwal’s popular monthly Indian food pop-up, Meesha, which she hosts at Pomerol. Roasted, juiced, and spiced pineapple complement the flavors of a street-food snack, pani puri. In another course, dal arrives topped with creamy burrata cheese, and roti is wrapped around chicken curry like a taco. Tender black cod comes over sago pongol — almost like a tapioca risotto — with soft, spiced peanuts.
The meal weaves a deep background in Indian cooking with Western ingredients in a way that feels natural and most importantly, in service of flavor, rather than shock. It’s an ability that served Agarwal well as she transitioned from home cook to restaurateur and brought elements from her background forward in fresh and creative ways.
“I always wanted to try something new,” says Agarwal. Growing up, she learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen and ate her way around Delhi, the big city just two hours from her hometown in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Though she attended a small culinary school at age 18, she didn’t initially plan to become a chef.
But like the reigning queen of Indian cuisine, Madhur Jaffrey, who famously learned to make certain dishes by asking her mom to send recipes and advice from India to London, Agarwal cemented her skills far from home. When Agarwal first moved to Seattle, in 1999, her spouse visa (she moved for her husband’s job) prevented her from working, so she called her mother for recipes and scoured the internet for exciting dishes.
She dove into new cuisines, presenting elaborate dinner parties for friends, like a five-course Moroccan feast with lamb tagine and a fondue party. She would eat at the best and fanciest restaurants she could find and then try to recreate the food.
What began as a hobby transformed her. While enjoying a meal at Eric Rivera’s Addo in 2017 — eaten face to face with the chef as he cooked — she discovered a kinship with him. Both were minorities, and both were outside of the standard trajectory of restaurant cooks — Rivera began as a food blogger. Though they were strangers when she arrived, by the time Agarwal left, Rivera had recognized her passion for food and invited her to design a pop-up dinner at his new space.
The $75 Addo-based dinner was her first time selling her food, and the event sold out almost immediately, starting at a modest 16 people per dinner. But then she expanded it to 25 seats. Then more. As it grew around the area, tickets for each dinner were snapped up the minute they were released. At one point, the Meesha pop-up was so popular among the local Indian community that she donated a pair of $75 tickets for a fundraising auction and the bids came in at $1,000.
Agarwal saw an opportunity to grow even further. In June, she purchased the aforementioned Pomerol, a restaurant opened by chef Vuong Loc in 2014. Though many young restaurateurs arrive blazing with new ideas and confident that they know what’s best, Agarwal theorized that with an established restaurant, she could learn the ropes, see how things worked, and have the flexibility to make mistakes before she was the center of attention at her own place. “I saw that the previous owner was Vietnamese and doing French food,” she says, “So maybe people would be okay with an Indian woman doing French cuisine.”
And so Agarwal set about making changes she saw as essential to the restaurant’s success. She adjusted the menu to focus on small plates, starters, and vegetables. Even though nearby Sea Wolf wasn’t selling its bread to new wholesale accounts, she felt it was the best she could offer. So each day, even now, an employee picks up bread from that bakery so it can be on the menu at Pomerol. And slowly, as the restaurant stabilized through the transition, Agarwal began to add her own touches to the menu.
Agarwal changed the sauce on the chicken wings to an orange-harissa one and featured more vegetarian items on the menu, including socca, a French chickpea pancake, not unlike the Indian version called chila. She added pakoras — fritters — that change through the seasons. But mostly she just incorporated her own flavors. “I like to use earthy spices; I want to make it more Persian, Moroccan, Indian.”
And, each month, Agarwal runs the Meesha pop-up menu, but she says that the dishes featured there are not the end goal for Pomerol. Agarwal sees a middle ground, pointing to Joule’s Korean-French mix as an example. “It’s a French place, not an Indian one. But it’s French inspired by Indian flavors.”
In the meantime, Agarwal’s version of Pomerol is evolving as she masters the day-to-day operations of the restaurant and finds the space to do everything she wants. “Being a minority and a woman chef can be hard,” she says. “I’m up for 15 hours, always on my feet, but I’m still smiling. This is my dream coming true.”
Award-winning Seattle-based food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.