If you have ever wanted a taste of what its like to be Indian royalty from a century ago, dress up and head to the ITC Grand Chola’s Royal Vega restaurant in Chennai. Here, everything is silver and silk, waiters carry elaborately decorated trays on their heads, food is served in intricately crafted silver thalis and everything from your napkin ring to your menu card is studded with faux jadau diamonds. Clearly, this is no place for those who find joy in the simpler things in life.

Seasonal fare

The first thing you hear about the restaurant is that its serves only vegetarian food. While hardcore meat lovers would hesitate to give this place a second thought, vegetarians can rejoice at the purely herbivorous menu that is based on the ancient Indian system of cooking according to the six seasons, or rithus. The menu changes every two months based on what vegetables are harvested and are best suited for the weather. The menu is also inspired by the teachings of Ayurveda and is designed keeping in mind the climate and what is best suited for the body.

A royal welcome

With décor that’s opulent in a manner reminiscent of carefully preserved palaces, the aura of all things regal is maintained throughout the main dining area, which is more intimate, and the private dining rooms to the side. A standard welcome of aarti on a silver platter followed by being garlanded with a string of jasmine are all small theatrics that might embarrass the average Indian but first time visitors to the country will certainly be enamoured. As waiters in brocade sherwanis greet you with a bow and serve with a smile, the stage seems to be set for a royal scene.

The real experience at Royal Vega, however, is the food. The extensive menu, said to be inspired by the kitchens of royalty from eastern, central and north India, has influences from the Nizams, the Peshawars and other cuisines of the royals. As we settle in for dinner, we are first served a churan – to begin the meal on a sweet note, I am told.

The best option to get a taste of the restaurant seemed to be the thali, which gets a new menu everyday. Called the Ranjit Khasa, this royal banquet-style three course meal serves an assortment of seven to eight curries alongside two kinds of Indian bread and rice and end, of course, with dessert.

Going through their menu, which has all the traditional names for everything (did you know paneer is called ‘amiksha’ or that rice dishes are referred to as ‘shalivarga’?) can get a bit daunting, with detailed descriptions of each dish. We recommend you simply opt for the thali and get a taste of everything. Some dishes do stand out, but surprisingly it’s the simple ones and not the elaborate, rich ones. The Ananas Raita, with fresh pineapple and powdered cumin had us wiping our bowls clean while the ganika – jasmine-scented basmati rice – was a treat for both the nose and the tastebuds. The Zarasht Pulao has a generous helping of these sweet and sour berries native to Kashmir and go brilliantly with the Palak Chaman – a regal version of the popular Palak Paneer.

If you survive these courses with any room left, try dessert – or misthanam, as they call it here. We tried the Kheer Sagar and the Shahi Mitha – both of which were anything but low on sugar – but could hardly manage more than a few bites.

The thali is definitely overwhelming with way too many choices and an entire range of flavours that can leave your tastebuds working overtime, but some dishes will have you asking for a second round! If you have ever scoffed at the idea of a fulfilling vegetarian meal, then this restaurant will definitely have you rethinking your stance. While it’s a great culinary treat for vegetarians, Royal Vega will manage to convince even the most hardened meat-lover to give this fare a chance.

elizabeth.mathew@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on April 23, 2013)
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