February 21, 2020
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Iconic Restaurants: South

From Biryanis to exotic fish curries, the South has it all...

Iconic Restaurants: South
Iconic Restaurants: South

Photograph by R.A. Chandroo

Murugan Idli Shop

A restaurant named as a shop is an oddity. But then it was born in Madurai known for such oddities. And it was made famous by another odd­ity: politician Subramanian Swamy. When the popular joint got locked by DMK strongman M.K. Alagiri’s men after a family dispute, Dr Swamy famously broke open its lock so as to resume its flow of famous hot fluffy idlis with a ring of four chutneys and spicy chilli powder soaked in gingely oil. A grateful Madurai even elected Swamy to the Lok Sabha election in 1998. Murugan Idli has not looked back having spread its wings across the state and its roaster consists of amazing onion oothappam, sakkarai pongal and white paniyaram. Ano­ther famous dish it popularised was Madurai’s unique dessert—Jigar­thanda—a delightfully flavoured ice-cream laced with a mixture of seaweed. It became so popular that a gangster movie based in Madurai got named after it—one more oddity.

Pecos Pub
Brigade Road, Bangalore

Our physical spaces are impoverished: we eit­her get a misshapen urban dystopia as we emerge out of a Metro or we retreat into our glass-fronted, sub-prime corporate nothingness. But thanks to a psychotropic wormhole that Satan created, we can ever so often slip out of our featureless prisons and, on a jingle-jangle morning, land on our feet in places that are permanently caught up in the Seventies. And we must remember to pay our dues, with extra beer, especially if the genie takes us to a place like this old haunt off Brigade Road. If you type ‘Bangalore pub’ on any of your new-­fangled phone apps, chances are that your screen will be filled with endless shots of sleek blue cyberfunk: snazzy new baits for the roving, restless IT kids. But there was a time, and it’s still eminently liveable, when the tag took you to these charming three storeys filled with yellow, psychedelic rock ’n roll murals, copious beef fry platters, and endless replays of Ramblin’ Man. Neither the tra-la retro décor, nor the comfort food, nor the company, nor Allman Brothers will make you want to exit in a hurry.

Kannur Road, Kozhikode

Paragon restaurant, Kozhikode is truly a seafood adventure. Those who have palatal inclination for seafood must indulge in the fish mango curry, the prawns dry fry, the seafood platter, the fish moilee, the crab dry fry and dum crab, the squid fry, the anchovies fry- ah, oh, just a few of our fav dishes on the menu. Well, the menu’s not just all for the devout seafood lover for there is the chicken biriyani and mutton chops too that is equally satisfying. And to please Paragon fans the restaurant has been slowly spreading its wings to other cities. It all started way back in 1939 by a retired railway employee P Govindan, as the Paragon Baking Company, famed for its mutton puffs, bread and biriyani and, his son converted it to a full-fledged restaurant. The shocker came in 1991 when the restaurant was shut down briefly. Sumesh Govind, grandson of Govindan, all of 26, wanted to fly out to Hollywood and try his hand at filmmaking. But Govind was anguished to see his mother Sarswati run the business after his father’s sudden death, perhaps the only woman to sit in a restaurant in Kozhikode those days. Soon Govind was in the thick of things and transformed Paragon into what it is today.

East End
Madikere, Coorg

Over the years, Coorg has become a resort destination. Tourists—whether or not it’s monsoon—rar­ely step out to eat as the package normally includes all meals. This has prevented a throbbing restaurant culture in the region. But East End stands out, just off the main town square in Madikere. On a wispy, misty morning after a long walk through the rolling coffee and carda­mom plantations, it’s heaven to catch a juicy keema dosa or mutton cutlet for brunch (there’s also some vegetarian fare if one is strictly so), finishing it off with fresh, strong Coorg filter coffee.

Karwar, Karnataka

Karwar, at the southern tip of tiny Goa, with only the Kali river separating it from the gigantic Karnataka below, has influences of both regions in its cuisine. But as you dig into the fiery red fish curry at this proud little restaurant in the main market, the flavours are distinctly more Manglorean than Malvani. Not many tourists from Goa come this far, but the restaurant is packed with locals who definitely know their seafood. The crabs and lobsters are fresh catch and gently done, the spices only playing the supporting role. For vegetarians, there is ‘meals ready’ style full thali.

Azad Hotel and Restaurants
Chalai, Thiruvananthapuram

Azad, set up in 1940, claims to have introduced biryani in Thiruvananthapuram. Its array of biryanis—chicken, mutton, beef—and fish fry and curries remain the first choice among regulars thronging its six outlets. There is ample fare for vegetarians too like the gossamer-like idiyappam, soft and spongy appam and the delectable stew. The first outlet, situated just half a km from the famous Padmanabha Swamy Temple, remains a popular eating hub in the bustling old Chalai market. Refurbished over the years, a part of the restaurant still retains its original wooden bench-like seats. Now, with growing popularity, the restaurant chain has separate takeaway counters at all the branches. Apart from the restaurants, the group is also known for its bakery outlets with a range of traditional Kerala savouries.

Buhari Hotel
Mount Road, Chennai

It is undoubtedly the most popular restaurant on Mount Road and probably the first non-veg destination in an otherwise veggie hotel scene of the ’50s. A.M. Buhari, the founder, introduced the mildly spiced mutton biriyani and for eggetarians the egg biryani (with a full-boiled egg buried inside the rice). “If you arrived by a late train at Central or Egmore you were assured of piping hot biriyani or parotta-kurma at Buhari. It was probably the first brush with ‘midnight masala’ for a conservative city like ours,” once joked Madras historian S. Muthiah. And when his chief cook improvised chunks of marinated spicy chicken by deep frying them and served them with onion rings A.M. Buhari could only say ‘wow’ and asked it to be added to the menu. Since it was item No. 65 he named it “Chicken 65”. Also the year happened to be 1965, so the name found another interpretation. So much so, Siddhartha Basu in his Quiz Time and Amitabh Bhachchan in KBC posed questions on the origin of Chicken 65. Well, the dish and the restaurant conti­nue to fly high.

Kamat Lokaruchi
Mysore Road, Bangalore

It is true blue Karnataka fare here, much more authentic than any of those ubiquitous Kamats or Udipis dotting the streets of Bangalore. The restaurant’s leafy setting puts one at ease immediately and the friendly staff are a delight to talk to ask recipes of. The mude idlis, steamed in palm leaves, are so soft and wispy that breaking them would seem a violent act. The fresh coconut chutney poured over it takes you to heaven. Then there is akki roti, or rice roti, one of the specialties, crisp and spicy with a tangy chutney. The menu is extensive and they have various types of meals served on banana leaves, each worth slurping the last morsel off. If you are having a meal here driving on the way to Mysore, it’s better to take a short nap on the verandah, as the lunch can induce a delicious slumber.

Photograph by Kashif Masood

The Only Place
Museum Road, Bangalore

Sometime in the mid-1960s, Haroon Sait started a bed-and-breakfast guesthouse on Brigade Road, the best known address in Bangalore’s old British quarter, or the Cantonment. That led to, in 1968, The Only Place, the steakhouse that grew into one of the city’s iconic restaurants known for, as they put it themselves, ‘a whole lot of American-style noshes’. At the time, the B&B had Peace Corps volunteers and foreign tourists as guests. “In those days, you didn’t have the variety of food that you get now,” says Mohammed Hassan, Sait’s nephew who runs the restaurant now. “Har­oon Sait, a connoisseur of good food, saw what was required and that culmin­ated in providing the kind of things that they liked,” he says. In 2003, The Only Place shifted to Museum Road. The piece de resistance at the al fresco is the Chateaubriand Supreme, a steak that’s been on the menu right from the start.


Photograph by P. Anil Kumar

4M Biriyani
Musheerabad, Hyderabad

Nampally, Hyderabad

Yes, Paradise looms large as the iconic Hyderabadi biriyani joint for neophytes—but the real McCoy can be found in places like Musheerabad (4M) and Nampally(Alhamdulillah). The upgraded Humeira, in its new incarn- ation as 4M, serves what they call Lal Badshah (red hot chilly pepper beef), talewa gosht (double-fried beef scrumptiousness), and the staple biriyani. The ambience is slapdash ‘modern’—steel bar-stools, plastic white plates et al. Alhamdulillah doesn’t even make that pretence. The menu is pretty much the same as 4M, with an additional chaakhna and roti. Both places serve paya and nihari. Note for folks up north: the Hyderabadi nihari is a country cousin of the Delhi-Lahore delicacy, with fewer frills. Straight-talking zubaan and trotters. Now, the biriyani is less aromatic than its Lucknowi and Calcuttese cousins, but the deal here is kacchi gosht ki biriyani—where hours of marination does the trick, and the beef cooks with the rice, releasing its juices. There’s no respect in this city for pakki biriyani, where pre-cooked meat is added. Simply, marinated beef, saffron (no kewra here), and up top, caramelised onions for that sweet tang.

Govindrao Military Hotel
Cottonpet, Bangalore

The Cottonpet main road runs north-south through Bangalore’s pete (market), offering a rich tapestry of life in the city’s oldest hub. Hereabouts, since 1908, the New Govinda Rao Military Hotel (as it’s known now) has been serving its signature dishes—mutton pulao, kheema, ragi mudde and hagalakayi palya (a bitter gourd dish)—on plates fashioned out of dried leaves. It’s a rustic place. The recipes are pretty much the same as they were back then, says Eshwar Rao, who manages the eatery that’s open five days a week. The ‘military’ hotel—tucked into busy, narrow streets where you can dig into a non-veg meal—is a piece of Bangalore’s local cuisine. How they got their name isn’t exactly clear—one  version traces the origins to the 17th century when Shahaji Bhonsle, father of Chhatrapati Shivaji, governed Bangalore. At New Govinda Rao’s, the food is ready by 4.30 am or so and patrons are usually at the door by sunrise. Many a film star has relished their mutton pulao on sets.

Photograph by R.A. Chandroo

Royapettah, Chennai

Okay, so you’re in Madras and have been a good girl, tucking into that Woodlands thali for two days running, and now your soul smells of rava kesari and there’s buttermilk flowing in your veins. What do you do? Take a late-evening auto to Royapettah (it somehow works better at night) and walk into this den—a hum of breathless activity, and if you could pause for a breath, a mélange of smells, sights, sounds. Country chicken, quail, crab, mutton—the latter further devolves into liver, kidney, or if you’re in need of full-on cognitive therapy then mutton brain fry with egg. The spicing is, um, generous and true south—names like Mughlai denote only a marginal gustatory distance from Chettinad. Indeed, the prefix ‘Afghan’ would make sense only if you imagine the Cholas had conquered Kabul in AD 1000. Most meats come in biriyani versions too—including the rabbit.

St Marks Road, Bangalore

It’s just one of those Bangalore things to do. Walk down the leisurely Church Street, past the magazine store where a live Persian cat’s striped tail might embellish an Amateur Photographer cover, and a bookshop where you might pick up a 1922 edition Jacob’s Room, and finally across to Koshy’s for a spot of vodka-infused disquisition on the state of the nation. The décor is cosily old world, sort of reminiscent of a club with repeat visitors rather than the chic blandness of a mall food court, and the menu has that Anglophile accent too—bacon, chicken patties, cutlets, ham sandwiches, pork ribs—though the usual Indian culinary ethnicities are well represented too. But what you really consume here is the high-brow mise-en-scene. Here, editors and poets are conferring. There, a theatre veteran walks in, exchanging courtesies. And over there, Ram Guha is holding court.

Lalbaug, Bangalore

Most readers may know MTR now by the ready-to-cook packets of a hundred dishes—from kara baath to palak pan­eer—available at all superstores in most cities now. But Mava­lli Tiffin Rooms still stands solidly opposite the wooded Lalbaug Botanical Gardens, with its cavernous interiors, cool, dark crannies suddenly opening up to huge, bright dining halls. Even though it has forked its way to the neighbouring buildings over the years, lunchtime on most days will have a waiting of at least half an hour. But it’s worth it. MTR is known more for its snacks, the celebrated bisi bele baath with a spoonful of ghee on it, dosas, vadas, upma, chitranna, rava idli and badam halwa or fruit salad ice cream. But the meals or thali are also outstanding, even if they take a while to finish as sometimes the waiters can get lost in the labyrinth. At the end if you feel you have over eaten, as most people do, a walk around Lalbaugh should set things right.

Photograph by R.A. Chandroo

New Woodland
Mylapore, Chennai

Not many know that Krishna Rao, the founder of New Woodlands Hotels on the broad Dr Radhakrishnan Salai that leads to the Marina Beach, was the inventor of the masala dosai. It did not happen at this famous hotel, but much earlier when Rao used to run the Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas restaurant on Mount Road in the 1920s. New Woodlands has since 1962 remained the favourite destination for South Indian vegetarian food in Chennai. The masala dosa continues to be a favourite. Their breakfast spread of idli, vada, pongal, rava kitchadi rounded off with filter coffee is a great way to start a busy day. During lunch time, their Madras and Bombay meals fly off the kitchen with people asking for more of the brown, fluffy oil-free pooris. Their multi-cuisine menu too lives up to their reputation as the best spread for veggie food in Chennai. Located just a walk away from Music Academy, Woodlands also enjoys an intrinsic bond with Carnatic, as many musicians and rasikas make it a point to stay here during the December cultural season.

Photograph by Anto Varghese/Foveafoto

Kottayam, Kerala

Back in the day, a weary traveller, whether a wizened old maestro at the game or a neophyte lured by all the talk of toddy shop cuisine, could sidle into one of the corner benches just after a palm-fringed Kottayam sundown, and ask what was on offer. “Oh, we’re almost done, saare! Everything’s over,” the waiter would say with genuine reg­ret. And then…“if you want, I can get you some crab roast”. Um, well, why not. He disappears, and returns with the usual complement of milky-white potation. You need its sour piquancy to wash down all the garden-fresh spices the crab has gathered on its journey. And again, “Just checked, can get you some puttu and duck curry to go with it.” This is what they call ‘over’. When the larder’s full, you get pearlspot, turtle, mussels coming off those wood-fired stoves…the best in the game. Karimpinkala toddy shop, remember the name.

Photograph by P. Anil Kumar

MG Road, Secunderabad

The mountain does come to Mohammed after all. The original is secure in Secundera­bad, but the airport takeaway at Hyde has created a biriyani that travels as fast as its (very aromatic) reputation. A whole Eastern Ghat of saffroned rice, with chunks of mutton hiding in that yellow manna, may come and occupy the table next to you at your club. Or the moveable feast rides shotgun with a cousin on the evening flight. Now, biriyani loyalty runs thic­ker than ethnic fealties—draw a half-crescent from Moradabad to Thalassery, and India would be in a state of permanent civil war if the best biriyani had to be settled via duels. Happily, most rancour dissolves at the first waft of Pandanus odoratissimus. On the Hyderabadi genre, there’s bipartisan support, and Paradise has earned a synonymity with it. A Qubani ka meetha rounds off that paradisiacal feeling.

Photograph by Yummraj.com

Nair’s Mess
Chepauk, Chennai

Chepauk is famous for two things—the cricket stadium and, very close to its famous Wallajah Road End, the Nair Mess. The family-­owned eatery has changed its looks from a single-storeyed mess with benches for food in the corridors since 1961 it has now morphed into a modern restaurant. But a few things thankfully remain the same: the steaming white rice on the banana leaf, welcoming the cup of fish curry and the thin slice of vanjiram fish fry to go with it. “Even in Kerala, you will not get such fish curry and fish fry,” famous danseuse Anita Ratnam had cooed. Whether it’s the prawn thokku, mutton chukka or the mild-mannered mutton kuruma, there is no escaping the slightest whiff of coconut oil that triggers your taste buds but never turns them away. In the evenings their parottas and kuruma keep them busy. And there is a steady order for fish fry—as side dish to sundowners. To this day, Nair Mess remains a standalone eatery with no branches.

Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah

Vidyarthi Bhavan
Gandhi Bazar, Bangalore

In the early days, students from the neighbouring institutes like National College would land up here for breakfast. Those students went on to become entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers and continued to come to VB whenever they could, from wherever they could. Over the years the eatery expanded a little and then film stars, politicians, sportsmen like Shankar Nag, S.M. Krishna, Javagal Srinath became regulars. But the basic fare—benne masaal dosai and the distinctive coconut chutney, less coconut and more puffed Bengal gram—­remains the same. It may not sound much, but once you have tasted their smallish, muscular dosai, golden brown and crackling outside, with a dollop of white butter floating on top, spongy and wholesome inside with the runny alu masaal, the thick chutney lashing at the dosai as it is poured beside it not separately, it’s difficult to like any other. They do have other stuff—idli, vada, upma and so on—but it’s the benne dosai people keep going back to VB for.

Photograph by R.A. Chandroo

Ratna Café
Triplicane, Chennai

STRANGE that the best combination of idli-sambar is found in a restaurant started by a north Indian. Jagillal Gupta from UP’s Mathura set up this eatery way back in 1948 at Triplicane. And soon the plateful of idlis bathed in sambar—poured from stainless steel mugs—became the rage of the tiffin scene of Madras. The sambar’s recipe remains a secret till today, but its lip-smacking taste has remained consistent down the years. “Many thought our wood-fired stoves were responsible for the taste, but even after we switched over to LPG we have maintained the sambar’s taste. Only a handful of our cooks know how to make the sambar,” points out Rajendra Gupta the current owner. He also has another suggestion: gulp down the idli-sambar, but do not miss out on their other delights like medhu vada, crisp dosas and filter coffee. But those dishes remain a mere afterthought once you have slurped the last sambar-soaked piece of idli. Your mind might consider the rest of the menu, but your tongue shouts for an encore of the same combo.

Photograph by Joshi Manjummal/Fovea Foto

Grand Pavilion
MG Road, Kochi

Beside the regular foodie, the Grand Pavilion, started in 1963, is on every wedding shopper’s and traveller’s list. The Grand menu is mostly dedicated to Kerala food with appams, mutton roast, rice and grandmother’s fish curry. The diner—be it a Malayali yearning for comfort food or the vast number of cuisine tourists who vist the state—will enjoy the unassuming casual dining experie­nce. Those unfa­miliar with the Kerala cuisine can go for what is declared as Combinations: kappa-meen, thattu dosa-prawn curry, puttu-kadala. Karimeen (pearlspot) fried or karimeen pollichathu (pearlspot wrapped in banana leaves) are the signature dishes, charged according to the size and weight of the fish. The fish meals with the flourish of curries like the anchovy peera, the dried prawn chutney and the mango chutneys are a delight. If it’s the lucky day, you get their stellar dish—the brinjal char curry—with the meals.

Dindigul and across Tamil Nadu

THe  name means head dress. Thalappakatti actually referred to the turban worn by Nagasamy Naidu when he opened his small biriyani stall called Ananda Vilas in Dindigul town way back in 1957. The name got so identified with the owner and the eatery that its lip-smacking biriyani and the food chain also got renamed after Thalappakatti. It also spawned dozens of imitators who were finally stopped from using the name only by a court order. Thalappakatti remains Tamil Nadu’s most sought-after biriyani destinat­ion. The secret lies in the Seeraga Samba rice (smaller than Basmati, but equally fragrant) spices sourced from the foot of Western Ghats and meat from known traders. “We want to be India’s largest Biriyani chain in five years,” says D. Naga­samy named after his famous turbaned grandfather.

Alwarpet, Chennai

Hot, hotter and hott­est—a phrase associa­ted with Chennai weather is applicable to Amaravathi. For, only a restaurant offe­ring Andhra food can get away with spicy hot food. In spite of its fiery cuisine, it has customers coming back to get socked again since it opened 37 years ago by the Reddys of Savera, Chenn­ai’s first four-star hotel. The city badly needed the Andhra fare what with one-fifth Telugu population. The chicken dishes soaked in masala have remained perennial favourites. The chicken Amaravathi and chicken fry are in constant demand. Their mutton gongura and mango prawn curry proclaim the Andhra pedigree of this restaurant. For the vegetarian, their meals with the spread of chutneys and pickles along with pulusu and garlic rasam offer a tempting variety.

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