Nestled in the narrow residential lane of Jambulingam Street in Nungambakkam, Aadhirai, the latest culinary addition to the city, stands out with its bright white and yellow exteriors. One is greeted by an old mango tree, a fresh coat of paints and some worn out yet charming windows as one walks into the restaurant.
The 80-year-old home-turned restaurant, owned by the Subbiah family, opened its doors a month ago assuming the name of Aadhirai, inspired from the namesake mythological character from Tamil epic, Manimekalai. “Windows from the family’s ancestral home in Karaikudi have also been refurbished and used,” informs Chef Koushik Shankar as he takes us on a quick tour. The chef has curated the restaurant’s menu along with the family.
As we settle down at one of the wooden tables, glasses loaded up with tawny brown ice are rushed towards us. A quick spoonful to taste makes it melt away into panagam in the mouth. “It’s panagam granita,” our maitre d’ informs. Next up were vadams served with an interesting set of dips — an avakaya mayo, a garlic dip, a fiery green chilli one, and another tomato and red chilli thokku. As we dunk the vadams into the dips one by one, it’s a strange familiarity of flavours, yet tasting novel. The avakaya mayo, for instance, is given creaminess from mayonnaise to the much-loved grainy and chunky mango pickle. These two dishes were enough to set the tone for what was going to come out of the kitchen — traditional ingredients, but not necessarily served in a traditional way.
“I’m known as the ‘mad chef’. I want to push the envelope, while still sticking to the roots,” says chef Koushik as he places on the table a dish of loaded yam nachos. Yam thinly sliced and well fried to be topped with tomato salsa made for a great south Indian replacement for nachos. Milkshakes also come with a southern fusion, using karupatti (palm jaggery) and coconut milk. There are dishes from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka as well. Whether it’s vazhaipoo vada, or bendakaya palli vepudu (fried okra with groundnuts from Andhra), or kalan (from Kerala) or Mangaluru’s chicken chukka — one can find iconic dishes from all four states. The prawn ghee roast is a clever dish of prawns cooked in a ghee masala, and served on tiny sheermal bread. All the ghee and spices are soaked up by the bread, ensuring no loss of flavours. “It’s my tribute to chefs Imtiaz Qureshi (88-year-old master chef known for his dum-pukht cooking) and his son Ishtiyaque, with whom I had worked many years ago,” declares the chef, as we gobble up the dish.
There is also a section of the menu dedicated to traditional heirloom recipes passed down among the owners’ family. This is where one discovers puliodarai eaten with a meaty uppu kari (salty stir fry of mutton) — the way it was consumed decades ago. The tanginess of rice gets a good balance from the spicy meat.
The fusion continues through desserts as well — wherein Hyderabadi qubani ka meetha is served with ice cream, paal payasam with crushed pomegranate, akkaravadisal is given a generous pour over of salted caramel sauce and panna cotta is made using karupatti. While the apricots are married happily with the ice cream, and paal payasam with a hit of pomegranate, the salted caramel overpowers the humble rice pudding and the karupatti panna cotta could be an acquired taste. As chef Koushik says he doesn’t believe in the word ‘authenticity’, be prepared to have your idea of authentic shaken up here.