ITC Grand Chola, was a blessing to Chennai. It brought with it conferences of scales that Chennai has never witnessed before and while hotels around the area were in jitters, they've all benefited from ITC Grand Chola. When ITC Grand Chola runs of out space in their 600 plus-room tiny property, everyone else gets going. It brought audiences from around the country and around the world and introduced them to the essence of the Chola architecture. People who didn't know or care about the history of Tamil Nadu were interested in peeking at its marvel. But there was one blot. While it had great food, all those visitors had to do with Italian and Asian and North West frontier cuisines and despite all of its Chola dynasty architecture, there was no South Indian food. Guests could marvel at everything but if they wanted South Indian food, they had to make do with some a-la-carte at Cafe Mercara or whatever was available in the buffet at Madras Pavilion.
Come 2017 and they've erased that blot! And how. Work-in-progress for almost two years under the watchful eyes of executive chef Ajit Bangera, Avartana (pronounced Avartan) is probably the world's first modern progressive South Indian restaurant. It takes a lot of guts to open up something like this in conservative Chennai but for those in Chennai who are not fond of spending big bucks for South Indian food, this offers fresh perspective with familiar tastes. The preview dinner for five of us left us craving for more as the chef-de-cuisine, Harish Rao, a South Indian cuisine superstar himself presented every course with dishes, stories and memories.
Rasam poured over herbs, brewed like tea and poured over a martini glass is your first course! Fantastic rasam, true to its tangy flavour in a whole new avatar. This was followed by lamb brain in a dumpling. Two pieces of absolute bliss. Again, new avatar, but same but slightly subdued flavour. Brain is very common in South Indian cuisines and down south, brain is served in most places where lamb is served. The flavour here was similar, but definitely subdued, just perfect for a setting that is a modern progressive take on something.
This was followed by fried karela (bitter gourd) with some pickle in the form of a powder. The bitterness of karela was evident, but brilliantly subdued enough to give you the flavour but not the unpleasantness. And a chilli lobster from Andhra. Spicy. Really spicy but extremely flavourful. Like classic south Indian, the flavour of the lobster was fully overpowered by the spices. That finished our appetisers and we were given some pineapple sorbet with lemon froth as a palette cleanser.
Idiyappam (string hoppers) with stew was presented in a large soup bowl with loads of french beans and the stew being poured in it. You may not spot the idiyappam, but once you dig in, the flavours are unmistakable. No subduing of anything here and the soft idiyappams with the rich coconut based stew will lead you to comfort. This was followed by another classic, parotta gravy. Of course, it was presented with lots of spicy mutton gravy topped off with a crisp parotta and a merengue. Throughout the dinner, that merengue was the only thing out of place and I don't know why it was there. It didn't add anything to the dish. The vegetarians got idly with gravy and it looked very appetising, so I got a photo of that. I didn't get a taste because our vegetarian friend refused to share. This was followed by Mutton Conge with raita. Now the mutton conge was a typical mutton sadham (mutton gravy rice), but the brinjal raita that it was served with was the hero here. The tanginess of a boondi raita with loads of freshness was beautifully complemented by the mutton rice conge. The drink I had to sip on all through dinner was the paneer soda (rose sparkling water).
Making the humble thair sadham into a modern progressive dish was amazing. Butter noodles with pickle in a dropper and buttermilk poured into the large soup dish reminded me of the thalicha thair sadham (tempered curd rice) with all flavours intact. The pickle in a dropper made sure it was there but in a modern (though cliched) avatar. The modern interpretation of the semiya payasam (sweet vermicelli kheer) was fabulous. Crunchy vermicelli arranged like a nest with ice cream inside like eggs with cashews and raisins beautifully recreated the original. Even the beeda (paan) was modern and with true flavours of paan and gulkhand (rose mix) it was refreshing in its cold avatar.
Retrospectively, the decor beautifully represents the food. Understated luxury with a vast open kitchen and a modern outlook with beautifully spaced tables makes it inviting and pleasing to the eye without being in-your-face.
There is no a-la-carte, here, but multiple set menu options starting at Rs. 2000 plus tax upto Rs. 4500 plus tax. Ours was a Rs. 2000 menu and it had about nine courses. The food is rich, but unlike even good quality South Indian restaurants, didn't leave my stomach burning all night with all the spices.
Spending a lot of money for your cuisine is never easy. Big names like Alex Atala who struggled giving modern Brazilian food to Brazilians and chef Massimo who struggled to give modern interpretation of Italian to Italians have had to sustain for a while before making it big. Going by the current wait list and fully sold out opening day, ITC Grand Chola might have hit bulls eye with the timing, though their guts to open this up in Chennai instead of a million other places is to be appreciated. If this works here, it will work anywhere. Actually, it will work anywhere else and I sure do hope it becomes a runaway success here.