A culinary trail - Beyond Madras @ Park Hyatt Chennai

A kolam at the threshold, the intricately carved 'Granny Door' leading into the restaurant are the first indications that something is different. The lights are low, bringing the gleam of copper and stainless steel vessels into focus. And the unmistakable aroma and sizzle of dosas and appams.

During the day, The Dining Room at Park Hyatt Chennai is as contemporary as any other discreetly busy five star restaurant. At dusk, it changes, chameleon-like, into Beyond Madras, the ethnic southern Indian inspired dining space. Waiters are dressed in the traditional attire of the region, tables are laid with shiny silverware and baranis - ceramic pickle jars, terracotta coloured napkins sit on white tablecloths and Indian music complete the setting. Make no mistake - it's very much a five star setting.

We knew Beyond Madras was being readied and we were thrilled to be invited to review the new offerings. Once seated on plush sofas, menus are handed around, it's a buffet with table service. The menu is changed on a rotational basis.

Chef Balaji and his team have spent time learning the finer nuances of classic south Tamilnadu food from the region's best teachers - a whole generation of older women - paatis, who have been making this cuisine for most of their lives. The traditional ways of cooking, right up to the hand pounding of spices and pastes are faithfully followed, we were told.

Sherbets and carrier

All the niceties were observed - cold towels to refresh ourselves and a choice of sherbets offered. I chose nannari, Indian sarsaparilla. The drinks were brought on a wooden tray with slats.

My delicious nannari sherbet

One sip of mine and I was transported to my days at hostel, sneaking out with my roommate on hot Saturday afternoons to the nearby juice shop for a glass of nannari sherbet. We'd watch the owner pour the thick syrup from a bottle into glasses, add a squeeze of lime juice and top it up with water and ice bits - weren't we bold? I still think it's one of the most refreshing of drinks. Of course there is no need to play Russian Roulette with Park Hyatt's offering and believe me, it was the old familiar taste again. Only this one had sabja (sweet basil) seeds in it.

Bread with tomato chutney

A basket of bread made its appearance, the bread, shaped into buns was topped with spices and crushed peanuts and had a tangy tomato chutney as accompaniment, a match made in heaven.

Ragi wadai; sola pinju varuval

Spices used in cuisines south of Madras are mainly coriander, chillies and fennel, along with ginger, garlic and shallots. Millets are also used extensively. One of our starters was ragi wadai - finger millet patties and sola pinju varuval - fried babycorn. While babycorn is not native to the region, the clever use of spices and rice flour that coated the corn resulted in a crisp texture. The wadai could have done with more pronounced spice notes. Neither of the starters had any trace of oil on it.

Kothamalli kozhi

The non veg starter was  kothamalli kozhi - chicken cubes braised with chillies and coriander. The meat was very tender and the coriander gave the dish a wonderful fresh aroma. The food was served on washed banana leaves that sat snug in our large plates.

Crisp appam served with gravies
Three veg curries and 2 non veg ones were served in little katoris or bowls. There was a mixed veg curry thickened with coconut and peanuts, a green pea curry and a deliciously tangy vendakai (okra) curry. Non veg gravies included a dark red snapper curry that had been cooked in a clay pot(again tangy but not spicy), a mild white chicken curry thickened with cashew paste and a home-style mutton curry. They were served with a flaky parota and batter-based breads like pearl millet dosa, idiyappam and a lacy appam. While the curries were tasty, I wish the flavours were bolder.

Shankara meen kozhambu; thinai thakkali sadam

Most Indian meals include a serving of rice, but here, it had been replaced by a more healthy thinai thakkali sadam - foxtail millet cooked with shallots and tomatoes. Interestingly, millets are used extensively in the southern regions of the state.

Filter coffee ice cream; elaneer payasam; vatallappam; inippu sevai

Dessert had been pre-plated, there was a serving of elaneer payasam - tender coconut cooked in coconut milk, inippu sevai - rice vermicelli with grated coconut and sweetened with sugar, an elegant slice of vatallappam - steamed caramel custard and Beyond Madras' signature filter coffee ice cream with a dainty crisp wafer. The hero of the plate was definitely the vatallappam with its silky smooth texture and beautiful coconut custard flavour.

Nope, they were not done with us as yet and as we were told in the beginning, our meal would end with a hot beverage. The choice was between a cup of traditional filter coffee and kalkandu pal - hot milk sweetened with palm sugar. I found the milk far too sweet so if you order it, it might be a good idea to ask for a less sweetened version.

Kalkandu pal; betelnut 

Like the end of all good South Indian meals, the mandatory betel leaves were brought out, along with lime paste and other paraphernalia.

The meal at Beyond Madras is priced at 1350/++. As Restaurant Week Chennai is going on, the whole menu is available for 900/++. Service is very good and every aspect of the meal is explained. And don't forget to take a string of jasmine flowers as you leave the restaurant.


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