By looking at this food can you say it is South Indian? I couldn’t. If it was not for the brief I got before arriving at the lunch I’d not have known I was eating South Indian food that afternoon. Until I tasted it that is.
I fell in love with south Indian food about 10 years ago when I went to live in the south. Many trips after coming back, learning a few recipes there and my children’s love for the cuisine ensured that even though I am not in the South, I still am connected to its food. So when I got to know chef Ajit Bangera and his team from the award winning Avartana of @itcgrandchola was in Delhi, I was obviously excited.”We thought we should come to Delhi and Mumbai to showcase what we do in Chennnai,” chef Ajit Bangera, a seasoned ITC hand who spent over two years conceptualizing and creating the menu, tells us. “We wanted chefs who were from the south but did not cook South Indian, that would have restricted their creativity.” And so, chef Bangera’s team was created with chefs who were deft in modern techniques and also familiar with the southern palate — a balance crucial for the development of the innovative yet gratifying menu.
It is this vision, hard work, and, as the chef says ‘blood and tears of his team’ which have made Avartana one of the most loved places in the city within two years of launching. The pop up at the Delhi and Mumbai properties, says he, aims to showcase the work done by the team. We are only glad that they chose to come to Delhi for the 11 course menu surely turned out to be one of the best meals I have ever eaten — and with how much I eat, that is saying something.
Like all good South Indian meals, we start with rasam. Of course you do not know it is Rasam until you drink it. The clarified broth comes in a jug and is infused with fresh coriander before being poured into a Martini glass. The rasam is smooth almost velvety with the aroma of fresh coriander shining through. I devour two glassed even though chef insists me to stop lest I be too full for the meal. A carrot cone with fried lentils, come next as the perfect amuse bouche. Made with sliced carrot and stuffed with fried lentils, the tiny portion teases both your palate and mind and leaves you wanting for more.
Our lunch starts with poached prawn with pickled onion, served on a bed on homemade cheese, dressed with coriander oil. The freshwater prawns turn out to be sweet and flavourful. The soft and salty cheese worked beautifully with the firm prawn; coriander oil and pickled onions meanwhile add a punch. Next comes the lobster dumpling with chilli jam. I am a little shocked to see only one dumpling there, but chef assures I’d get more if I’d like. The beautiful dumpling with hints of familiar flavours and the sweet and spicy chilli jam does make me want another, but I chose to wait. That is when crispy chilli potatoes come in. You’d think they are idlis. The ones they fry in podi and serve with chutneys, but this with its soft and starchy potatoes and the buttermilk sphere, a little blob that bursts to reveal buttermilk, is much superior and stays on your palate.
That is when the palate cleanser arrives. A sorbet made with orange and ginger served with lemon foam, shaped like a fruit.
I have been to multiple multi-course fancy meals now, and in every meal, barring one at Orient Express, Taj Palace, Delhi, I am done by the time the palate cleanser arrives. Either I eat too much, or the portions are such that after four-five courses your body can really not appreciate anything else. This did not happen here. I was, in fact, looking forward to what next.
And next was something I wasn’t sure I wanted. While I do eat fish, I am not too fond of it, and this course brought in Pan Fried Cod with tomato Pancakes and coriander sauce. But I have decided to eat whatever is served and I go ahead. The fish is flaky and soft and the pancake, actually coin sized utthapams, compliment them perfectly. The sauce adds zing. I am glad I gave it a try.
What comes next is something I am going to taste for a long time — Uthukuli Butter Chicken with Malabar Parotta and a butter toffee. A small Taluk in Tamilnadu, Uthukuli is known for its rich pure and beautiful butter and the team at Avartana has ensured they make the best of it. The chicken is buttery and peppery and just the right quantity, the parotta is tiny and the flakiest I have eaten, and the toffee, a piece of butter wrapped in beetroot paper is a work of art. The vegetarian version of the dish uses morels, which I find even better than the chicken. (ITC morels are to die for). The lamb rice that follows is just enough to leave you wanting for more; its accompaniment, the velvety raita, is a course in itself with the perfectly fried aubergine and golden garlic.
No meal in the Southern peninsula is complete without curd rice, and Avartana’s version comes with sago and a little sauce which reminds you of the pickle. The sago is smooth and while you’d expect anything sago to be sweet, this is delightfully salty and refreshing.The sauce and the fried chilli that come along take me back to my canteen meals in Bangalore.
At every step of the meal in Avartana one wonders what would could the next course be. I am almost at the end of my meal — and almost full — but am still looking forward to what next. What comes next is a delight. Fennel Panacotta with angel hair caramel, the last course of the meal is also the most extravagant. The pannacota is shaped like an egg, angel hair caramel form a nest. The egg complete with a runny yolk and the nest with tiny edible flowers make it so realistic that you take a while to eat it. Once you taste it though, you don’t want to stop. “Our vegetarian guests in Chennai are sometimes taken aback by this,” chuckles chef Ajit, “but we manage to convince them.” And that is the thing about Avartana, you may have your reservations about certain things, but once you taste them here, you’d be a fan for life.