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There are restaurants where you pay for the privilege of fussing over seasoning, even as the manager tries appeasing your over-pampered palate with custom made desserts. Then, there are eateries where you surrender yourself to the maestro behind the stove, eating off his palms with the zealous gratification of a 5-year-old; I am reminded of the 3-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, featured in the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. While Rayar’s Mess does not have Michelin Stars or a documentary, it is a chip off the same block - an institution where the food triumphs over all.
Begin by navigating the Tam-Brahm stronghold of Mylapore, preferably after a daybreak walk on the Marina Beach. Ask around till you find a narrow lane off Arundale Street, leading up to a small throng of hungry patrons, some squatting on the staircase nearby.
Walk up to the door, of what looks like a humble one-bedroom flat, and get your name registered on the waiting list. You will have to wait for 15-30 minutes or till you are summoned, after which you enter a bright, dinky room with four tables and plastic stools. A segmented banana leaf is placed in front, with a glass of water. It is customary to splash a few drops on the banana leaf, and gently massage it before draining off the water. With a practiced and unhurried pace, men will walk out of the sooty ‘open-kitchen’ bearing tumblers of chutneys, podi and ghee. They will go about each table, enquiring. The correct answer is yes, please; always. The kara chutney is a city-legend – an unapologetically piquant condiment of green chillies and curry leaves; it is the South Indian equivalent of wasabi, as addictive as it is agonizing. Then there is the supporting cast of coconut chutney, a lentil based chutney, and a not-so-fiery gunpowder (podi), with which you ought to form a little crater-like reservoir for the fragrant Ghee.
After a brief pause, the first highlight arrives. Moist, subtly spiced pongal is scooped onto the leaves and vanishes off them in no time. It is not unusual for Rayar’s stock of pongal to run out by as early as 8 am on weekends. A platter of idlis does the rounds next, soft but not as wickedly soft as Murugan’s. Saving the best for the last, Rayar’s piece-de-resistance arrives, vadais. Scrumptiously crunchy crust, with an uncommonly pillowy texture – the contrast is dreamy. I have eaten a fair number of vadais in my gluttonous lifetime, and these are the best I’ve ever had. Mr. Kumar and Mr. Mohan were kind enough to let me step inside the kitchen to observe the deft frying of the vadais. I’m sure the secret lies in fermentation of the batter; a secret that has remained inside the kitchen since India’s pre-independence days. Coffee is usually served outside to make space for the next batch of Rayar-devotees, a necessary inconvenience. Robust, with a distinct tinge of chicory - it is a redoubtable dabara of Mylapore filter coffee. When I egg Rayar’s young successor about expansion plans, he shrugs it off saying, “Cannot risk the quality”.
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