Culinary Voyages with Minnie Menon: Ayna

The power of a brand name is hard to beat! Ayna the speciality Indian restaurant at the Hilton is a classic example.

Ayna, as the name suggests is truly a mirror, a reflection of what a discerning customer is seeking. Their search ends at Ayna. The restaurant’s offering covers cuisine from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari and is truly PanIndian in a contemporary and transparent setting.

A 60 seater restaurant that is open for lunch and dinner, it serves a sumptuous Sunday lunch buffet too. Very few speciality restaurants offer this eye-filling spread and it is, yes, kid friendly. Sunday afternoons are a family affair with loyalists returning time and again for their regular fix of biryanis, dosas, kozhi varuvel and other delectable fare.

The restaurant went in for a major re-positioning exercise about two years ago. “From a South Indian restaurant that offered limited North Indian fare, it has expanded to a Pan-Indian one,” explained Executive Chef Achal Aggarwal. The concept changed but only after intensive in-house research.“We held food festivals of dishes from the different states. This exercise extended over eight months. We then zeroed in on the favourite fare among our guests,” he explained. Quite scientifically done I thought. Chef Achal struck me as a chef who took pride in the journeys that he made in his quest for culinary excellence and the ultimate menu that was put out on offer. For this Chef, the customer is king. And his 18 years experience in leading hotel chains in Delhi and Chennai has been his bedrock in this mission. With pride he shared with me how his regulars kept coming back time and again.

The clientele that night I noticed were part hotel guests and part local residents including expats. “Can they handle the spice?“I enquired. “With ultimate ease,“was Chef Achal’s response.

I learnt that a new menu is introduced once a quarter after due diligence in the form of a series of food trials internally. Chef Achal explained the exacting journey they undertake for about 25 days from flag-off to getting the thumbs up and unveiling  the new menu. They also get feedback from regular customers. The food bloggers are called in at the final stage of this exercise.

“Our cuisine is traditional, dishes that are accepted over the years with a contemporary presentation,” said Chef Achal.

The tasting menu crafted for me started with an appetiser… a prawn and crab in a puff pastry. It was Indian in flavour but with an international aura. I was then introduced to ‘ABC. ABC?  A cooking lesson for a rookie like me? I wondered. “No, ABC does not stand for the first 3 letters of the alphabet but for Ayna Butter Chicken,” said Chef Achal gleefully. The taste was authentic but the appeal was different. The  Ayna vada is another example of authenticity / transformation . It’s like a medu vada but made from tofu, therein lies the difference. My next course was a mixed platter of ‘Malabar chemeen fry’, a spiced prawn preparation. It was a true Kerala edition of this dish. Grilled grouper fish flavoured with curry leaf, tandoori salmon and chapli kebab – a minced lamb cutlet, completed the platter.

My exercise regimen on the days I do a food review ensures a hearty appetite.  I do full justice to the lavish meal crafted for me. I handled the next course a tad gingerly. An Ayna speciality…Haleem in the traditional gravy along with Haleem in a seekh kabab form cooked with chicken and mutton.  It looked sinfully delicious and was finger lickin’ good.

The dessert was the piece de resistance… an Indianized Baked Alaska named The Peak. How cool is that I thought! Externally it is a replica of its original western counterpart but the killer kick lies inside. It is spiced up with betel leaf, fresh fennel and green cardamom powder and raw mango chutney puree. Quite lethal I can assure you. This combination added a zesty tang to this classic all time favourite. Kudos! The concoction was sheer brilliance. Indeed, the inspiration for a WOW recipe can emerge in moments of creative ferment.

And this Baked Alaska certainly scales the peak and dominates it. My taste buds had discovered the meaning of ‘seventh heaven.’

I lingered after my meal. I did not bother about my calorie count, that would have been sheer lunacy. But what suddenly struck me was that Chef Achal had been following my reviews faithfully and had noted my ‘no carbs at night fetish’. There was not a single tandoori roti or buttered naan served to me that night.

‘This is outright policing Chef! ‘I thought in jest. ‘Goes blatantly against the individual’s right to privacy act!‘

But I am not complaining!