Avartana at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai is a bold culinary move in a city that is perceived as conservative. And the modern South Indian fine-dining restaurant has been a resounding success.
It’s been over four years since ITC hotels’ bold punt on South Indian cuisine debuted in a city that’s often misunderstood as overly conservative. It’s fair to say that ITC has showcased some of India’s finest cuisines over the last few decades in restaurants like Dum Pukht and Dakshin. Avartana represents a leap of faith, a foray into a territory that might be slightly unfamiliar ground for the group.
Dakshin, which also began its journey in Chennai over three decades ago, was about demystifying South Indian cuisine to a wider audience. Avartana is the next logical step. An effort to place South Indian cuisine in a whole new context for a generation of more evolved diners. I still remember the mix of excitement and anxiety when I interacted with the team behind Avartana during trials around the launch phase. The hotel’s then Executive Chef Ajit Bangera was one of the key architects. It helped that Ajit spent much of his professional career in Melbourne, one of the world’s best cities for food. It also meant that he was able to balance his knowledge and passion for South India with a global approach to look at the same cuisine from the outside.
The décor is the first sign of Avartana’s bold vision; South Indian motifs are present but only as subtle reminders, blending seamlessly into the décor. It’s easy to imagine you are in an elegant dining space anywhere in the world. You might notice the lights that resemble banana flowers or the wall art that pays tribute to Kerala’s instantly recognisable boats. It sets the tone for the culinary experience.
This is a restaurant that will appeal to the palate of traditionalists who understand South Indian cuisine as well as the hotel’s countless international guests. The culinary approach doesn’t lean on transient trends like molecular gastronomy or just putting presentation above everything else. It’s a more concerted approach to keep pulling you out of your comfort zone through each of its courses. The restaurant offers a choice of Chef’s tasting menus ranging from 7 to 13 courses that keep challenging you with each course. The rasam is infused in a French Press and served in a Martini glass. Avartana uses modern food techniques to add flavour and tweak textures. The staid curd rice is crafted with sago rice and served with a test tube flavour shot while an idiappam is served with a traditional moilee gravy. There’s also a fennel-infused panna cotta that resembles an egg and is broken with a performance that borders on theatrical by the culinary team.
Chef Nikhil Nagpal who fronts Avartana is constantly looking inwards and outwards for new ideas. The tasting menus are constantly refreshed, the latest dessert addition — citrus coconut paired with coffee ice cream — is the finest I’ve tried here and is clear evidence that the team hasn’t dropped the ball.
Mayank Kulshreshtha, Area Executive Chef – Southern Region, ITC Hotels has taken over the reins from Chef Bangera and remains committed to the original vision for Avartana. This is a rare restaurant where the dramatic presentation techniques don’t take the focus away from the flavours. It’s probably the one reason why Avartana has gone beyond just being the flavour of the season to a restaurant that has built a loyal legion of regulars.
If you’re a true-blue South Indian, Avartana’s authentic flavours can trigger special food memories from your childhood and take you back in time. If you’re like a growing band of global gourmands, you will appreciate the fabulous interplay of quintessential flavours in a fine setting. There’s every chance that we will see Avartana debut at some of ITC’s flagship hotels across India in the near future. Avartana takes an uncharted, often quirky route and gives South Indian cuisine a fresh, global perspective without stealing its soul.
Avartana is at the ITC Grand Chola, 63, Mount Road, Chennai 32. Phone: 2200-0000 (www.itchotels.in) Meal for two: Rs 8,000