Think about the Chettinad kitchen and you can’t be blamed for bringing up images from Chicken 65, Prawn Thokku or sheep Chukka accompanied by the best Kal Dosa, white rice or Veechu Parotta in offer. It’s no wonder then that traditional “messes” like the Velu Military and Pattukottai Kamatchi messes have become a legend in Chennai, serving rustic offering after another on banana leaves that gets your hands dirty while digging. .
You don’t get any of that at Avartana, the South Indian fine dining restaurant at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. There are no banana leaves, tubs full of sauce, sizzling fish fry removed from the frying pan. The dishes also do not have local names.
Small South Indian Kitchen
What you get are bite-sized tasting portions plated to Michelin star perfection – barely from South India, certainly not Chettinad – the smallest fillet of sea bass cooked in steam over a bed of fermented gongura and buttered rice emulsion. Shortly after, a coriander chicken arrives, accompanied by mini appams on the side.
Twelve dishes eventually arrive at the table, among which Mussels in coconut broth with sautoirs (idyappams), a pork cracker with banana and chili, and a citrus coconut with filter coffee ice cream on the side. At the same time, Avartana’s food is just as much South Indian as it is not. A happy confusion ensues. Apparently, this is on purpose.
âWe felt the need to be different in the South Indian culinary space,â says Ajit Bangera, Senior Executive Chef at ITC Grand Chola and one of the main menu makers at Avartana. âWhen I was traveling and trying new dishes, I always chose a tasting menu to get the whole experience,â he adds. “I thought I could create a tasting menu here. The only problem was that we weren’t. I’m sure India was ready for that.”
This perception was understandable: Indian cuisine is meant to be shared. Ajit Bangera nevertheless took the plunge – a bet that seems to have paid off. The goal was simple: to compose a tasting menu from South India that would appeal to palates the world over. âHowever, we had to be careful not to lose the essence of the South Indian food,â Bangera explains.
“Wanted to inspire the intrigue”
A good starting point was the Rassam, a staple in South India. Only, Avartana serves it from a coffee press into a Martini glass, almost like having you consume it as a drink as opposed to the watery concoction that goes over white rice.
More avant-garde is coming soon: a lamb’s brain with a small slice of rava dosa as a fondant, the house’s favorite dessert in the Fennel Panna Cotta, which looks quite like an egg in a nest before break it with your dessert spoon. âWhile we were aware that presentation could not come at the expense of taste, we also realized that it was just as important for diners to ask: how did they think about this? Bangera said, “We wanted to inspire the plot.”
In keeping with the presentation and universal appeal, Avartana has also introduced foods that may run the risk of being seen as alien to South Indian cuisine. Like the shrimp and cilantro dumpling – except dumplings have always been a part of Tamil cuisine better known by their colloquial name, kozhukattais. âWe also tried using cooking techniques that are beyond Indian like sautÃ©ing, sous vide and braising,â Bangera explains, âThe food had to have universal appeal.â
Culinary evolution underway
A part of this attempt to satisfy various pallets has also seen a great evolution. In her four-year journey so far, Avartana has cut out some dishes, spawned new ones, and kept some of her favorites. For example, his popular slow-braised pork with an edible ghee candle gave way to the candle used on raw mango pudding because not all diners ate pork. âWe have also started to use a lot more fermentation in our food, as the process provides a new level of Umami,â says Bangera.
Why remove local names, however? Certainly, any ambassador of local cuisine should seem as authentic as their taste – except that this was never intended to begin with.
âWe thought it was important not to give the dishes classic names, because they are not classic dishes in the first place,â Bangera explains. âWhen we start giving the plates classic names, everyone becomes an authority on how the dish is meant to be. That was not Avartana’s goal; we decided to leave no room for interpretations. “, he adds.
So it’s no surprise that the chefs at Avartana aren’t experts in South Indian cuisine either. Bangera says. In fact, one of Avartana’s main culinary staff is Chef Nikhil Nagpal, a longtime resident of Chennai with Punjabi roots.
The popularity of Avartana has caught up with the restaurant. While the concept and its dishes originated in Chennai, restaurateurs have successfully activated pop-ups in Singapore and London among other cities.
A branch is set to open at ITC Royal Bengal in Kolkata, and the major hotelier’s next property in Colombo in mid-2022. Thanks to these launches, the philosophy of his cuisine remains unchanged – South Indian cuisine that includes all palettes.