As I pore over the menu at Avartana, the latest addition to ITC Hotels’ portfolio of restaurants, my senses are overwhelmed by the words used in the menu – butter milk mayo, coriander shrimp dumplings, dried berry sauce, fennel panna cotta and angel hair caramel. Most will say that we are living in the age of “experimental” or even “modern” Indian cuisine. India’s culinary high priests will swear that we are way past the trend of modern Indian cuisine, with its foams and mists, and dominated by north Indian fare. But Avartana’s offering does not really fall under that umbrella. Its concept and philosophy is altogether different, and the genre of cuisine with which it works has been relatively unexplored. “Contemporary south Indian food” Chef Ajit Bangera tells me, as he ushers me into the breathtaking space, which is lauded as India’s biggest fine dining opening of 2017. The senior executive chef at ITC Grand Chola Chennai, who is himself a veteran in the food industry, tells me more – “We wanted to reimagine south Indian cuisine, and we wanted to go beyond our signature peninsular restaurant Dakshin. We want to emphasise that the core is traditional south Indian cuisine and its spices.”
At first glance, the restaurant does not have any signs of being an Indian restaurant – it could easily pass off as an international restaurant in say Paris or New York, with its pastel shades and open kitchen. But on closer inspection I notice giant banana palm motifs on the carpets, lamps on the ceilings resembling coconut clusters, lights in the shape of banana flowers and wall art that looks like Kerala rice boats. Indeed, Avartana has a very south Indian soul, albeit expressed subtly.
Down to the food, Avartana (pronounced Avartan) prides itself on not having an a la carte format. It has ONLY four degustation menus – ah, the word degustation is oh-so-trendy. The menus are named Maya, Bela, Anika and Tara and vary in the number of courses, going up to 13 courses, with veg and non-veg options. While this is certainly the world’s first progressive south Indian restaurant, this certainly is India’s first restaurant offering ONLY a degustation menu format, a pretty courageous, and from the looks of it, a very well-received move from ITC Hotels.
The menus have been, Chef Ajit tells me, a work in progress for over two years. After all, conceptualising and creating a menu for a new restaurant from a hotel chain that gave us Peshawari, Dum Pukht and Dakshin, must be no easy task. “We’ve done our research over two years. We’ve gone into people’s homes, in all the different states of south India. My team of chefs and I then huddled together to convert our ideas and inspiration into dishes. We moved away from traditional thalis, everything is pated 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 Ajit tells me.
Martini glasses are then brought out and placed before us. “It’s cocktail hour,” I excitedly think to myself before I am told that there would be no martinis. A French press filled with traditional rasam, steeping in spices, coriander and tomato, is brought to the table, brewed for a while and then poured out into the glasses. “The standout dish is our rasam, which we have elevated. It took us six months to perfect it and we have used international techniques of rehydration and distillation to give this rasam a new identity.”
It’s time for me to begin my meal. The menu (a personalised one with my photo on it), is presented.
Here’s the line-up, for vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
I will share a few food shots of the spectacular courses that began to roll out. Fish IN (and not on) Chips was served with a butter milk mayo. A heady lamb brain fritter, a few shrimp dumplings and some stir-fried lobster later, I enjoyed a beautifully plated portion of idiyappam, topped with asparagus, beans in a fragrant coconut stew. The heaviest course, in my opinion, was the lamb congee served with aubergine yogurt (one of my standout dishes on the menu, and a recipe shared by the chef’s wife). Though not on the menu, a south Indian favourite, curd rice, was served in a glass trough, topped with a poppadam and a chilli.
I looked around me and there was not an empty table in the house. While I did initially question ITC’s extremely courageous move of opening up such an avant-garde dining concept in Chennai, which is a fairly traditional market, Chef Ajit is quick to point out that the restaurant has been working to full capacity in the weeks following its opening. I look around me and see not a single empty seat in the room – my initial reservations are instantly quelled.
Be that as it may, it appears that Avartana has already carved a niche for itself by revolutionising south Indian fare, and giving it a modern avatar. With lofty expectations set by ITC’s Bukhara, Peshawari and Dum Pukht, possibly the three best Indian restaurants in the world, Avartana has managed to assert its identity, but not without great effort. While its success at ITC Grand Chola Chennai is sealed, we can’t wait to see it expand to other cities.
ITC Grand Chola Chennai (www.itchotels.in)