Recently renovated Southern Spice at Chennai's Taj Coromandel gets back to what it does best — serving the real deal in South Indian cuisine.
After close to a year under renovation, Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel, Chennai, has opened doors again. Originally launched in 1996, it is regarded one of the best restaurants serving South Indian cuisine. While the restaurant's décor and food may have changed, its focus remains the same — to offer diners an authentic experience of a South Indian meal.
On entering the restaurant, you are welcomed with the ceremonial aarthi and the hostess applies kumkum on your forehead. Carnatic classics play softly in the background as your eyes sweep across the softly-lit space, the warm glow created by traditional Kerala oil-lamps suspended from corners. The restaurant draws its design inspiration from ancient South Indian temples of the Chola, Pallava and Pandya dynasties; the centre of the restaurant, in fact, resembles a temple courtyard. Impressive pillars wrapped in silver leaf grab attention even as your feet sink into the soft, hand-tufted, kolam inspired carpet. Bronze statues peep out of niches in the timber-lined walls and the ceiling panels are intricately crafted in the lotus leaf pattern.
The interiors are by the well-known designer Ed Poole, of Singapore-based Poole Associates. The larger-than-life wall murals, created by Chennai-based artist Sai Krishnan, depict royal scenes from a bygone era in each of the four Southern States. So you have erstwhile rulers of Karnataka staring contemplatively into space in one, while another shows a courtesan applying lip colour and surrounded by handmaidens.
The restaurant has three private dining rooms that can each seat 6-12 comfortably. The cosy enclosures have glass walls that can be made opaque for added privacy. Each of their ceilings is a work of art in its own right. The décor celebrates opulence in the grand South Indian style, with gold and silver glinting off the carefully selected cutlery. But as I sit down to the meal, I am urged to remember that the real star attraction here is, and always will be, the food.
The new menu at Southern Spice has been a few years in the making, during which the team of chefs travelled all across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, straying away from metros to venture into the smaller towns in search of authentic recipes. A dish from Dindigul, a spice from Bekal, a seafood recipe from Karwar; each was picked after careful tasting and trials.
Guests begin the meal with the five different rasams on the menu, with the Mysore rasam and the chicken chaaru being the favourites. Light, tangy and well spiced, they kick start the meal with a punch. There's a steady stream of starters: the chicken ghee roast delightfully spicy, while the slow-roasted, cumin-infused duck was melt-in-the-mouth. The traditional kuzhi paniyaram, tempered rice and lentil dumplings were devoured quickly, dipped into the freshly prepared coconut, mint and tomato chutneys.
In a departure from usual five-star dining, Southern Spice features egg dishes such as free-range eggs with homemade spices and the innovative, ladle-cooked omelette stuffed with boiled egg. The asparagus parupu usili was a variation on the regular bean usili prepared in many homes, while the kosambri with ginger-tamarind yoghurt served on lettuce leaves brought together different textures. Hot appams, crisp Kerala parathas and spongy, sweet Mangalorean sannas accompany the variety of dishes that follow. A gravy version of the chicken ghee roast was as delectable as the dry one, while the button mushrooms in a roasted coconut curry was tangy and spicy, perfect with the sannas. Soft-shell crab or scallops in pepper stew are also on the menu, with seafood one of the major highlights of the restaurant, prepared with the fresh catch of the day.
Steamed rice and arachivitta sambhar, a staple in Tamil homes, bring back memories of meals at my grandmother's house. As does the thick curd rice served with fried chillies and pickles at the end of the meal. Nostalgia forms a major part of the meal experience here.
The elaborate Valrhona chocolate mousse arrives, with swirls of decorative tempered chocolate. Urged by the chef, I break the chocolate centre and a warm jaggery and coconut sauce oozes out! The combination is as delicious as it is unique.
The elaneer payasam with nuggets of tender coconut is sweet and cold, but my attention is diverted by the coffee server mixing the dark, sweet concoction in true South Indian style, putting a steadily increasing distance between the cup and glass with each mixing. I quickly order a cup and sip slowly, while the strains of “Aanandam, aanandam, aanandame” play softly in the background.