Sunday, September 20, 2009

South Indies

In the past, I've reviewed everything from biriyani to bouillabaisse and caviar to cajun. But this review is much closer to home, in more ways than one!

South Indies, the theme fine dining restaurant invited me for a review of their Brahmin Food Festival. The fête is being held at both their 100ft road as well as Infantry road restaurants from the 18th until the 27th of September, coinciding with Navratri. As you may have guessed by now, the food menu was inspired by traditional dishes of the Tam-Bram (Tamil Brahmin) community (to which yours truly belongs).

Venkatesh Bhat (the head chef) and I go back a long way, my having reviewed his food when he was the Executive Sous Chef at the Leela Palace earlier. He was kind enough to be a wonderful host for my wife and I.

Chef Bhat teased us with a light, delicious carrot soup to start with. If you like a little extra zip to your soup, this sure has the spices to leave your throat tingling. We moved on to a few classic starters - keerai vadai (fried lentils with spinach), ulundu bonda (batter fried urad dal stuffed with coconut, pepper and chilis), and batter fried baby potatos. We missed sampling the kaara kozhukattai (steamed rice cakes), which might be a healthy alternative to the fried options.

We were presented with a lovely spread for our main course. The manga pachadi (raw mango cooked with jaggery, mustard and curry leaves) was just perfect - tangy enough without being bitter or too raw. The avial (vegetables cooked in curd gravy) was passable and didnt have much to write home about.

One of my personal favorites, the keerai mulagootal (Palghat dish with spinach, dal and coconut) was excellent (see picture above), but was quite different from what I've been raised on both in terms of flavor and texture. It had a lot more red chili and less pepper and coconut than I'm used to. But once I put myself past the mental block of comparing it with my mother's recipe, I liked it. Ultimately, it is important that we balance our pursuit of authenticity with acceptance of the diversity of our cuisine - the subtle variants in how different homes make the same dish is what makes them unique.

The paharkai pitla (bitter gourd in tamarind curry) was terrific and I would highly recommend it, despite the acquired taste involved. The bitter sweet flavor of tamarind paste is a key ingredient in most southern dishes, and the pitla uses it to perfection in liaison with the bitter gourd.

All the brinjal/eggplant dishes were excellent as well - try the yennai kathirikkai or kathirikkai rasa vaangi, and you will not be disappointed. Both of them are classic dishes as well with their unique variants in each household.

A number of sides and accompaniments complement your meal, ranging from the relatively common adai, oothappam, vangi bath and thayir saadam (curd rice - a 'classic' Tam-Bram staple to top off a meal) to the elumbicham saadam (lemon rice) and thengai sadam (coconut rice). Picture: thengai sadam.

The desert menu is impressive, and apart from the usual fare, offers the nendra pazham varati (banana with jaggery) and panchamrutham (five ingredient combination of banana, cashew, honey, jaggery and dates). And if you'd prefer to pass on the sweet stuff, try the kumbakonam 'degree' kaapi for your shot of caffeine.

My wife and I liked the food so much that we're planning to head back next week when my parents visit.

A few things for you to be aware of:
  • The Metro construction work in progress has created quite some havoc in the area. Once you negotiate past the stretch to reach South Indies, their valet service handles the rest, and it's less inconvenient than it seems.
  • The ambience blends chic with rustic southern elements well, but you may want to look around to find a nook that you like the most - the first table we were shown wasn't as tidy as we would have liked.
  • Resist comparisons to your mamma's recipe or Shanthi Sagar's prices - sit back and enjoy the fine dining experience.

Cost: Rs 400 for fixed price menu including starters, main, dessert (à la Carte available as well)
Cleanliness: Average
Quality: Excellent
Service: Excellent
Ambience: Good
Bottomline: The perfect place for a Navratri week family outing. Dont let the all veggie menu dissuade you - the variety will make up for anything you may miss.

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