16th Anniversary Special: Evolution of Chennai’s culinary landscape

Chennai’s food scene looks a whole lot different now from what it was a decade ago. We did some heavy fork lifting to bring you the biggest trends in the biz
In frame: Avartana
In frame: Avartana

Speciality restaurants with flavours from Mylapore to Mexico, curated chef tables and hip restobars — our city has seen massive shifts in its culinary landscape over the past decade. And with the era of the influencers, these days you don’t have to book a table to get a peek at what to expect. We even made it to Asia’s list of 50 best restaurants, earlier this year, with ITC Grand Chola’s famed Avartana that rolls out distilled rasam in a wine glass as part of their elevated South Indian dining experience. And last year, if you remember, saw a MasterChef Australia winner, Sashi Cheliah, open his restaurant Pandan Club in T Nagar with a novel menu of Peranakan flavours.

 Rapid evolution

Yeshvin Mathew, founder of the Grub Food Company which has set up over 60 restaurants, cafés and pubs in South India, tells us that the customer is the driving force behind this rapid evolution. With increased spending capacities, frequent travel and, of course, a marathon of cooking shows for consumption, bland generic menus are out, global is in. And the more nuance and attention to detail, the better. “People now ask: where are the coffee beans from? Are they medium or dark roasted? They want to know if our pizzas are wood fired and Neopolitan or Romano style. Customers are learning fast. We need to keep up,” says Yeshvin.

He also points out that more travel has educated people and raised their standards to authentic food from all over the world. And this includes the new flock of restaurant owners who are now asking consultants and chefs to make food that they had in Tokyo, Rome, New York and Seoul. And with ‘Instagrammable spots’ getting so much attention, architects and interior designers are getting a larger piece of the pie as well. Themes range from tropical and brightly lit like the new Nasi and Mee on OMR IT Expressway with a stunning floor to ceiling 22-foot mural of birds in flight to multi-sensorial like Teto in Gopalapuram to tech-inspired like Locofeast in Nungambakkam where we got our Ramen delivered to us by a mini Japanese bullet train!

 Meanwhile, closer home, South Indian flavours seem to have found their way out of the traditional banana leaf, and into unexpected new places. Like when we found ourselves enjoying the most flavourful Italian arancini over an appetiser at a restobar awhile ago, and realised it was filled with lemon rice.

South Indian, reimagined

South Indian food researcher and TV host Rakesh Raghunathan, who joins the new panel of judges on MasterChef Tamil, calls this intersection of familiar flavours in fresh formats — ‘micro cuisine’. “This was not a concept that existed in South Indian restaurants in Chennai back in the day. You would get staples like idli, vadai and bisibelebath. Today, however, there is that boundary that is being pushed when it comes to conversations around micro cuisine, indigenous and seasonal ingredients,” he says.

Step up to the plate

 Reimagined flavours aside, contemporary plating and presentation is also piquing interest, he points out. We particularly remember a platter of ‘parotta soil’ that resembled beach sand served alongside crisp Nethili fry at Kari Theory, a chic restobar at Radisson Blu where the entire menu is inspired by the street food of Tamil Nadu.

Novelty brings in new clientele and as you can tell, there is no dearth of innovation among chefs and hospitality players in Chennai. “I also see cocktail and gin culture becoming bigger in the next couple of years,” predicts Zahir RR, owner of popular restobar Radio Room. Ask him what the secret sauce is to stay relevant and keep folks coming back, in a market he describes as “12 new spots opening and 10 shutting down” and he lets us in on a handful of industry secrets.

“Look for a place that has ceiling height, or people can start to feel claustrophobic. Guests also appreciate a private entrance, it makes a lot of difference to get the vibe going,” he shares. But the biggest one, he shares is consistency. “I like to keep it simple,” Zahir says, “Good food, great cocktails and excellent service.”

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