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Flavours of South India, distilled for a global audience

Chennai’s inventive restaurant Avartana opens in Mumbai with butter from Uthukuli, chillis from Salem and a pre-dessert inspired by Tiruneveli halwa

Uthukuli butter chicken with beetroot toffee and malabar parotta.
Uthukuli butter chicken with beetroot toffee and malabar parotta.

In 2017, while working at Zee, I was with a team that conceptualised a restaurant awards property. During multiple discussions, debates and blind tastings, the one name that stood out, and went on to win awards was Avartana (pronounced Avartan) at the ITC in Chennai. It’s the Indian Accent of South Indian cuisine with a modern, inventive and global approach. Sample this: Butter from a region in Tamil Nadu, named Uthukuli, is wrapped in dehydrated beetroot sheet like a toffee, and served with a delicately spiced chicken gravy accompanied by mini Malabar parota and salli (crispy shredded potato). It’s the kind of stuff that innovative dining dreams are made of. Then there’s the famous distilled rasam—no one can have just one (glass).

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After waiting for years, the restaurant has come to my city, Mumbai. It’s located at the ITC Sahar near the international airport, and launches today. Those familiar with the city’s restaurant scene will wonder why they didn’t open in the more glamorous and centrally located, ITC in Parel. The kitchen was slightly smaller and they needed more space, informs Nikhil Nagpal, executive chef at ITC Hotels. Nagpal was part of the launch team that conceptualised Avartana about eight years ago. In Mumbai, it was a time period marked by the opening of progressive dining and ingredient-focussed restaurants, like The Bombay Canteen, Masque and The Table. Avartana imbibed a similar flavour-centric ethos with reimagind dishes and rose from the South.

Last week, they had a media experience with a 10-course sit-down dinner. The amuse-bouche with a mint and pineapple sphere served atop a crispy potato patty induced the experience of a pani-puri, and set the tone for the meal—unexpected, indulgent and comforting. The experience was a showcase of ingredients and reimagined dishes from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Consider the chillies: Guntur from Andhra was used in the pan seared lobster with a spring onion emulsion; and Salem from Tamil Nadu went into an inventive sweet-sour jam with coriander that accompanied a soft shrimp dumpling. Both were polished off in seconds.

Foods signifying a South Indian meal, like the idiyappam, came with a cinnamon-spiced coconut stew and asparagus. It was one of the two dishes that didn’t work for me, because the under-seasoned asparagus lacked flavour. Next in line was another item that was out of tune. It was steamed seabass stuffed with butter sticky rice in a moat of fermented gongura emulsion. I expected the tartness of the gongura to kick in, but alas it was tempered down by fermentation. A multi-course menu is characterised by ups and downs; and what followed redeemed the lows. There was the famous Uthukuli Chicken with mini malabar parottas softer than the best croissants. Awed by the perfect layers of the parottas, I imagined slathering them with strawberry jam, onion relish and burrata; a culinary reverie worth a few seconds of distraction. The pre-dessert was a reimagined take on the ghee-laden, wheat-based Tirunelveli halwa. It felt like a khatta-meetha congealed sour mango chutney, topped with an edible ghee candle that was lit on the table. It was accompanied by a slightly charred papad. The idea was to wait for the candle to melt completely, break the papad over it, and relish it all together. It reminded me of Bengal’s mango tok (chutney) which is enjoyed with a side of something crunchy, like papad. Finally, the dessert arrived plated like an egg in a nest. The glimmering brown nest was made with delicate paper-thin threads of angel hair crafted with sugar, the egg had fennel pannacotta to mimic the egg white and a gooey mango ginger puree to resemble the yolk. It was broken open with a hammer, and there was a minute of silence to admire the details. The flavours lived upto the promise of a sublime dessert to complete a memorable meal. Not to forget: the soul-nourishing distilled rasam, bright with flavours of pepper, coriander and cherry tomatoes, and served in a martini glass. I had three and will go back for more.

The dessert fennel pannacotta, angel hair caramel.
The dessert fennel pannacotta, angel hair caramel.

Avartana has five set menus spanning multiple courses, from seven, nine, eleven to thirteen. The price ranges from 2500-4,750 (excluding taxes) which makes premium dining approachable in one of the costliest cities in the country. The team has perfected the portion sizes and timing between courses to pace the meal well. Luxury hotels, with multiple chains, attempt to create iconic hotel brands. ITC opened Dum Pukht in Delhi in 1988, and nearly every ITC hotel in the country has a Dum Pukht now. With Avartana, they have adopted a similar approach. The first Avartana opened in ITC Chola Chennai in 2017, the second in ITC Royal Bengal last year, the third launched in Mumbai this week, and the fourth will be in Delhi. Thereafter they will go to Colombo, says chef Nagpal. It’s a fine way of taking South Indian flavours overseas—one rasam glass at a time.

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