Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Avaratna - ITC Grand Chola Chennai. Outstanding.

On Saturday 16th June 2018, we had, what we collectively thought, the best Indian food in India as well as the best meal [all cuisines] in India.

The restaurant – Avaratna at the ITC Grand Chola Chennai.

Having got that out of the way let me proceed.

The restaurant is open only for dinner. This is a handsome restaurant, bright and open. The lights you see hanging in strands represent Banana flowers. On the wall you have a design feature to represent a wave crashing down on the beach. There were also Banana Leaf outlines woven into the carpet, but I did not take a photograph.

Avaratna is 14 months old. The restaurant has only 4 tasting menus, of 7, 9, 11 and 13 courses, in both a vegetarian option as well as a non-vegetarian option. There is no a la carte. The prices start at INR 2000 all the way up to INR 4500, all, obviously excluding taxes. We opted for two 9 course [Bela] and one 11 course [Jiaa] menus.   

A few lines about the food. First, do not in any way be frightened at seeing a 13-course menu. The quantity of food is not gargantuan. Each course is between 1 ½ to 2 bites, not more, so at the end you will be full but not bursting. There were 3 of us dining, Senior Mrs. Stonethrower, HRH the Queen of Kutch and myself. Different menus were chosen. Each of us wanted a swap of a dish from our chosen menu to one from another menu. The request was handled without a blink of the eye. The food is NOT fusion but is in fact Modern South Indian. Let me explain. Naan with Blue Cheese is Fusion. The new ways of serving Paani Poori is Modern. Fusion food is where ingredients that don’t belong to a cuisine are paired, as I wrote, Blue Cheese and a Naan. Modern could be used to describe a newer way to serve or present traditional food. Avaratna serves Modern South Indian food. 

Chef Ajit Bangera who headed the team that developed the menu said in an interview “that he does not want to tart up or reinvent great South Indian classics. Instead, he wants to take South Indian flavours and masalas and pair them with a few staples (appams, dosas, uttapams, rasams etc.) to create a cuisine that is recognisably South Indian in the mouth, but is not gimmicky or show-offy”. He has also said that they have “moved away from traditional thalis, everything is plated in international standards. Presentation is an important part of the experience and once you dig into your dish, you will realise that it is undeniably South Indian”. Chef Bangera and team has certainly achieved this.

The food was served, as I have written earlier, in small portions of a couple of bites each. The presentation was modern and Western, no bowls of brown curry with Kothmir garnish or onion rings. All the food served to us [except the Lamb Congee & Aubergine Yogurt] came in custom designed plates, designed to show off the food. The Lamb Congee & Aubergine Yogurt seemed like an afterthought served in a clunky Ramekin with an Oriental soup spoon containing the Yogurt. 

Above: Lamb Conjee Aubergine Yogurt 

You did get the obligatory foam in a nod to Molecular Gastronomy. You also got a sorbet, which, like every sorbet we have eaten in India is simply too sweet. You also got several amuse bouche. Thus, all the boxes that have to be ticked by international restaurants were ticked here too.

Above: Cucumber & Ginger Sorbet

Above: Orange & Ginger Sorbet

A few of the dishes were truly staggering in their conceptualizing. You must have heard the cliché that all South Indian food consists of is Rice with Sambaar, Rice with Rassam and Rice with Curds. As is the case with clichés, this is not wrong nor is it particularly accurate. Keeping this cliché in mind, along with what Chef Bangera says about a cuisine that is recogniseably South Indian, you had the brilliant Rassam. Now Rassam is served much like a soup in traditional Chinese food, to be sipped along the course of the meal. Here the Rassam was really intelligently tarted up. A jug of crystal clear flavourful Rassam was poured into a French Press containing fresh Coriander and halved baby Tomato. The flavours infused and you were served the herbed Rassam in a Martini glass. Top class.

Continuing the cliché, a South Indian meal ends with a serving of Dahi Rice, pickle and a Papad or Applam. This is exactly what was done here. A beaker of not rice but Sago balls, Tapioca or Sabudana [all are the same] in cold Dahi, served with a Test Tube of tangy chutney, a fried Apalam and a classic fried Dahi Chilly. This dish was to my mind the defining Modern South Indian dish of the evening.

Above: Sago Yogurt, Tamarind & Dried Berry Sauce, Apalam & Chili

The third dish that blew my mind was Slow Roast Belly Port, Coorg Vinegar Masala, Barley and Ghee Candle. A photograph is just below. This was nothing but the traditional Coorgi Pandi Curry made with the Kachampulli Vinegar. The bit that got me was the Ghee candle. They really made a candle of Ghee, lit so that the Ghee melted into the dry powder Mulgapodi. Normally, hot ghee is spooned onto the Mulgapodi.. I was gob smacked.

A course that was pronounced a winner by both Senior Mrs Stonethrower as well as HRH The Queen was the Lamb Brain Fritter. A photograph is just below. It was absolutely melt in the mouth and wonderfully light. Almost Foie Gras in texture. It was served with a thin and crisp shard of Rava Dosa. Absolutely brilliant.

The mini Idlis served with the lamb chops were a work of a master. We all agreed that these were the best Idlis we had ever eaten, soft, light and amazingly smooth textured.

Also, the fish was accurately cooked across all courses. Be it the Sea Bass or the Cod with Coriander Broth. The Scallops too were perfectly cooked (which is not the norm in India)

Yes, there were duds too. The sorbets were rubbish. Another amuse bouche of Paniyaram with a Garlic Chili Chutney was foul, it was left unfinished by all of us. Too much raw garlic and chili in the chutney. A photograph is just below. The Pork Dumpling simply did not work. This photograph is much lower down.

The rest of the food I am not describing. Here are the photos for you to drool over.

Above: Amuse Bouche - Marina Beach. Fried Apalam with Mango, Orange and Chili Powder 

Above: Poached Red Prawn. Pickled Onion & Tempered Cream Cheese

Above: Fish In Chips [Not "and" but "in"] Coriander Emulsion. Much Like Patra Ni Macchi

Above: Pepper Chicken with Spiced Meringue. The Meringue is the white bit with Fennel.

Above: Pork Dumpling, Jaggery & Pepper Chutney, Sesame Gunpowder

Above: Asparagus & Coconut Stew, Fried Channa Daal, Mini Appam 

Above: Amuse Bouche. Dehydrated Fried Karela, Potato & Beetroot Yogurt Cream

Above: Chilli Scallop, Peppercorns and Mango Ginger Sauce

Above: Pan Fried Cod, Coriander Broth & Rice Pancake

Above: Steamed Sea Bass, Tangy Cumin Sauce Crisp Okra & Sesame Rice

Coconut Masala Lamb Chops, Coriander Seed & Shallot Chutney, Mini Idlis. Photo of Mini Idlis higher up

Duck Roast Charred Onions and Mini Malabar Parotta

Above: The Mini Malabar Parotta

Above: Asparagus, Coconut Turmeric Cream & Idiyappam or String Hoppers

Above:Fennel Panna Cotta & Angel Hair Caramel [spun sugar]

Above: Trio of Payasam - Tender Coconut, Jasmine & Banana 

Above: Carrot Ice Cream, Black Rice Pudding, Green Gram Dumpling AKA Modak

Above: A modern Paan. The filling was frozen Gulkhand Coconut et al

The service was excellent, prompt, knowledgeable and cheerful. The food came out quickly and together for all 3 of us on the table. Without exception each plate had food that was hot [as in Garam] and perfectly seasoned. This is very difficult to achieve. Full marks to the coordination between the front and back of house.

To conclude, please do make a visit to this restaurant. Excellent and without doubt the best food in India today. Do go. And no, it is not expensive.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

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