Almost anytime someone seeks a restaurant recommendation when they need to impress overseas clients or to celebrate a special occasion in Chennai, Avartana is on my list of suggestions. Cut back to 2017, I still remember my first dining experience here – a sneak pre-launch preview. ITC Grand Chola’s Executive Chef, Ajit Bangera, mixed confidence with cautious optimism. He asked me if I thought Chennai was ready for this. We met again as the restaurant turned two last month. He certainly received an emphatic response to that question.
In many ways Avartana is a restaurant that you’d expect to encounter in a city like London or New York City. A bold vision to present South Indian cuisine in a whole new context. This vision transcends to the design where South Indian motifs are cleverly integrated. The lights resemble banana flowers while the wall art seeks inspiration from Kerala’s ubiquitous boats. Thirty years ago when ITC Hotels chose Chennai to unveil Dakshin that has now grown to become a successful brand across India, it faced a different challenge. Back then it was getting diners in the city to pay a premium for a cuisine that was essentially home food for most people. With Avartana, ITC Grand Chola had to appeal to a whole new generation of well-heeled Chennai diners.
Chef Bangera didn’t fall for any passing fads like molecular gastronomy while crafting the culinary vision for this restaurant. While the food presentation borders on theatre – their rasam is served in a Martini glass and infused with herbs like coriander with a French Press, Avartana has stayed true to the flavours. It’s smart business sense; diners usually don’t return to a restaurant that rides purely on food presentation. What’s good for Instagram may not satisfy your food cravings.
Chef Bangera was probably better positioned to lead this initiative. He began his career in India before honing his skills in Melbourne, arguably one of the best cities for food in the World. He understands what a truly global gourmand seeks while his family connections in Southern India keep him firmly rooted. It’s why this restaurant is equally popular with traditionalists from Chennai (including Corporate chieftains) who understand South Indian cuisine and visitors to the city who are wowed by Avartana’s interpretation of Southern Indian cuisine. If you’re familiar with South Indian cuisine, you will appreciate how the stuff you love gets a fresh lease of life.
Currently the restaurant offers a set of curated tasting menus; Avartana has just added Jiaa – an 11-course tasting menu to coincide with the restaurant’s second anniversary. A curry leaf sorbet and a flaky, fried sea bass were among the courses that truly dazzled. Chef Nikhil Nagpal who fronts Avartana tells me how his culinary team is truly empowered to keep experimenting. It’s important that the innovation doesn’t stop. There are restaurants within the ITC hotels’ fold were the menu hasn’t changed for decades. That certainly works for comfort food but Avartana is a restaurant that shakes you out of your comfort zone. A global vision for South Indian cuisine that will hopefully move not just outside Chennai but also out of India.
Avartana is at the ITC Grand Chola, 63, Mount Road, Chennai 32.
Meal for two: Rs8,000 approximately