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Nearly a year ago, while seeking refuge from a room full of strangers, I walked up to Mr Ajit Bangera (Executive Chef, ITC Grand Chola) with a matching dram of whisky. In whites, he has a mien that makes young chefs sweat at the back of their necks. I was not a chef, so I rambled on irreverently till I said something that made him look up with a glint in his eyes and, a self-assured grin. ITC had lost its iconic South Indian dining brand - Dakshin - to Crowne Plaza (the brand was registered to the Adayar Park and not ITC), and its grand hotel built in the glory of Cholas did not really have a signature regional restaurant. Obviously, that was about to change.
Chef Bangera did not give away much, but I was cognizant of Avartana’s approach well before they announced it. I would be lying if I said I was not sceptical. We are in 2017, and if you are an eager diner then I can hazard a guess that you have probably seen a few wisps of liquid nitrogen and spherified yoghurt over the past few years. In between my first meal at the Indian Accent in 2014 to the insufferable bloops by many showy kitchens, I have realised two crucial things about modernist/contemporary dining. First, no one really craves for Jalebi Caviar or Chutney Foam; we crave for toothsome Jalebi and Chutney that dribbles down the wrist - the little spheres or air pockets are just sprinkled on a sundae. Second, in the age of Instagram stories and Facebook live - tricks get real old, real fast. Take, for example, the chocolate dome encasing an ice cream – it has moved from fine-dine Italian restaurants to my neighbourhood ice cream store in less than 2 years! Fecund imagination is the secret condiment that will keep A-players ahead in the years of ‘me-too gastronomy’.
Chef Bangera has seen enough plates in hotels, on ocean liners and across the continent to know this. He adeptly builds Avartana’s foundations with Chef Harish Rao (formerly with Dakshin), so that even if you are not impressed with the presentation, it is hard to deny the legitimacy of regional flavours. Rasam, whether or not strained a-la-minute through a French Press, is flawlessly seasoned. A high-point of clever cooking is the Spiced Meringue Pop, with sanguine notes of fennel and star anise, served alongside an unrestrained Pepper Chicken. No drama, no gadgets, no chemistry lab, just an adagio of decadence before the buzzing heat of Malabar peppercorns. My dining companion gushed over her plate Idiappam And Asparagus & Coconut Milk Stew, which benefited greatly by not trying to be more than the sum of its parts. Anubha’s father, Chef Rajeev Kumar, once headed the kitchens at the erstwhile Chola Sheraton (now My Fortune on Cathedral Road); she knows a good thing when she tastes it.
Avartana’s design, unlike other fine-dine South Indian establishments, is neither gaudy nor ceremonial. Mr. Chakkraphong Manipanti (from Thai design firm P49, who also refitted Dum Pukht) glides with a light hand and a nimble mind, so contemporary regional expressions fit cogently with what’s on the plate. You feel settled all at once, without any degree of tasteless frivolity. The restaurant gains in intimacy as you move through the large irradiated dining area, to cushier tables facing the open (not an island like Ottimo or Pan Asian) kitchen and private dining rooms.
In my opinion, Avartana’s boldest move was to restrict service to tasting courses alone - entirely unseen in any Chennai restaurant I have dined at. It works because Chef Bangera adroitly sequences plating and flavours. He stays faithful to traditional order while showcasing non-traditional technique, like raagam played by a chamber orchestra. Vegetables follow crisps, zingy spices are spread between soothing staples, and novelties are spaced out just enough to not enervate their charm.
So, a wholesome Lamb Conjee, served with Pappu and a creamy Eggplant Pachadi is left un-meddled - why mess with the kind of succour only meat curry and rice provide. A final flourish is the exquisite Fennel Panna Cotta, turned into an egg-in-a-nest with white chocolate, mango coulis and caramel strands. I have seen the technique before (at Masala Library in Delhi), but it is executed so earnestly that I think Avartana should consider it serving a-la-carte. They might also consider ditching the flash-frozen Nitrogen Paan - been done ad infinitum and I would rather just eat the Betel leaf, it is served on with some Paan masala. If ITC does create a signature brand out of Avartana, then I would like to see a larger portion of the inventive pizzazz which shows up in some courses. I think India is ready for fine-dining on unrestrained imagination and some solid South Indian flavours.