Culinary Voyages with Minnie Menon: AVARTANA

How many executive chefs are given a mandate which permits them to dream? A once in a lifetime opportunity to dream, innovate and create something never before? Very, very few for sure. Executive Chef Ajit Bangera of the ITC Grand Chola is definitely the chosen one. Ajit grabbed this offer like a deft fielder at ‘first  slip’ on the cricket field. Avartana, the celebrated new South Indian restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai is his baby…it was in the incubator for 2 years. Chef Ajit had a team of four. They went into a huddle, and armed with the power of imagination launched a truly outstanding 21st century South Indian restaurant. They have dared to be different and that is gutsy.

With a soft launch on March 17th, numerous newspaper reviews and a social media buzz that was unparalleled, Avartana opened its doors for business.

Entering the restaurant, I paused and took a step back. However much I was prepared for Avartana, it was like nothing we have ever seen for exclusive South Indian cuisine. Like bespoke clothes, Avartana prides itself on a bespoke menu. But this was only the beginning of my journey. The interiors were equally bespoke. I entered the 62-seater restaurant with brightly lit décor which looked anything but South Indian in the traditional sense at first glance. The lighting in the shape of banana flowers and the mural of a Kerala boat crafted in mother-of-pearl and back-lit against one entire wall gave an authenticity to the surroundings. But it stopped there in terms of tradition. Futuristic modernity deftly takes over the décor. The restaurant is a tad bright but that adds to the welcoming ambience. The private dining room reflected warm, honey brown lighting from coconut- shaped light shades over the dining table. The décor is a reflection of the artistic sensibilities of the Thai interior designer who had been awarded this prestigious assignment. Core South Indian elements were infused with a fine Oriental twist. I was given a guided tour and saw for the first time a live, interactive, see-through kitchen in a 5-star restaurant.

Ajit explained that they have tasting menus, not a la carte. These varied from 7 to 13 items. They had a specially crafted 12-item menu for me to enjoy over a tete a tete on fine foods and culinary trends. While waiting for my meal I flirted with some zesty and colourful cocktails. One was named after the address of the hotel. I then moved on to the serious business of tasting the tasting menu….quite a pun, right? Beginning with a herb-infused tomato rasam which was strained in a French press coffee strainer and poured into believe it or not …. a martini glass. What a way to elevate an everyday Madrasi household staple into an exotic drink! It reminded one of a Japanese tea ceremony. It had the accompanying pomp; all that was missing was the Japanese maiko girl! The Lamb Brain Fritter was a melt-in-the-mouth experience. Did it trigger thoughts of an Indian foie gras? Hmm…I savoured the moment. This dish is completed with a semolina crisp which is nothing but a rava dosa slice that is wafer thin and looking dashing placed in the lamb. While the cuisine is South Indian, the presentation is truly international. And therein lies the essential difference between Avartana and other great South Indian restaurants. This visual appeal of the cuisine mysteriously influences and affect one’s taste buds. “Taste and presentation go hand in hand. Re-imagining the way one eats South Indian food is the secret of this cuisine,” explained Ajit. Add to this the service team’s narration of each dish, with confidence and panache… This is truly an incomparable dining experience.

Coriander fish dumpling followed… the word ‘dumpling’ gave it an oriental and popular appeal. The Asparagus, French beans and Coconut stew Idiyappam, a truly wow dish in my book, is like an exotic vegetarian Khow Suey. I noticed a few visiting overseas residents enjoying the same dish.

My menu was like a star-studded cricket 11 and a twelfth man. Another of the stars on my menu was a stir fried lobster with charred onions, chilli and garlic. Noticing my obvious relish Ajit Bangera informed me they also have an exclusive seafood Tasting menu of 12 items with calamari, prawns, lobster and other treasures of the sea. All these menus are priced quite competitively, despite the star trappings and one-of-a-kind dining experience. The sago and yoghurt with its masterly presentation, complete with the tamarind and dried berry sauce looked and tasted quite the cordon bleu dish created to cool us down in sultry Chennai. “I am confident this cuisine will work anywhere in the world capitals in Europe. And now in the short time since we launched, some of the doyens of South India who love traditional cuisine have given us a big thumbs up,” concludes Ajit on a happily optimistic note.

I am filing this column gazing at the misty mountains of Mussoorie… Away from the heat of the plains and listening to the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling restricting the sale of alcohol at restaurants close to the Highways. This has put our Hospitality sector in a tailspin. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, our states are going to lose much need revenue.

We hope enlightened thinking will prevail and good times will roll.