Nair’s Mess, a favourite among foodies and office goers, serves a varied platter but it is their Vanjaram fish fry that tops the list

The lane is narrow. So narrow that I silently congratulate myself for not having a second helping of tiramisu last night. (Accessing a building sideways is never good for your image.) Nair’s Mess looms ahead like a gloriously ugly mirage, with its beat up old name board towering over a dusty street, forgotten rubble and tangle of bikes. My three friends look at me accusingly. “All this way… for this?” Flaunting a confidence I don’t feel, I tell them how it’s a favourite with at least three city chefs, not to mention a bunch of foodie friends. So we all troop in.

At 12.30 p.m. the restaurant is still sleepy. It’s spotless, stark interiors lit by tube-lights are being prepped for the inevitable lunch time onslaught. We go upstairs, in a room filled with regimented tables, neatly lined with fresh banana leaves. As we settle down, a chatty waiter comes by and looks at us — expectantly. We look back — expectantly. Long silence. Wondering how to break the impasse I hesitantly ask for a menu. He laughs for a while, and calls his friends. “Menu aaa? No menu.” Okay.

Then, like a school boy reciting his first poem on stage, he takes a deep breath and recites: “veg meals-mutton biryani-chicken fry-brain fry-prawn fry-fish fry-omelette…” When he pauses, the two vegetarians look a little faint. “Dosa?” one asks, hopefully. No. “Idli?” No. “Parotta?” No. He rolls his eyes. “No tiffin items. Only meals.”

So four meals it is. Once we decide that, the staff jump into action like a well-oiled machine. A man comes by with a bowl of steaming hot rice, and ladles it onto our leaves. Bowls of sambar arrive next. Then our waiter, who should undoubtedly get salesman of the year, turns up with a plate of freshly fried fish and waves it in front of our noses. “Fish?” he asks. Well. Okay. Turns out that’s the best decision of the day. Vanjaram (seer) fish fry is the Nair Mess speciality. Since the fishing trawler ban is on right now, however, they use other varieties of fish. Their big advantage is the fish is always fresh, and sliced really thin. So when it’s fried, with minimal masala, it’s crisp, flaky and tastes of the sea.

Meanwhile the vegetarians have been given watery cabbage, followed by a healthy helping of peas with mashed, spiced potato. Our waiter studies them with concern, and then returns with a golden, fluffy omelette, spiced with finely chopped onions, a hint of green chilly and redolent with coconut oil. In his other hand, he’s balancing a tiny bowl of prawns, reddened with masala. As he walks away, he signals another waiter, who scurries up with bowls of thin, spicy rasam.

Before we know it, he’s back, this time with a plate of what he calls ‘chicken fry’ though it’s more of a thick masala, with shrill, confused flavours. He slips my friend a bowl of fish curry, and then hollers for butter milk, for the vegetarians, who are beginning to look positively embarrassed by the attention. As the four of us eat, he returns with a bowl of creamy mutton curry. “Stop!” we squeak, “We’ve already eaten too much.” He shakes his head, and firmly places it on the table, saying “Complimentary.” There’s no meat inside, but the gravy is tasty. Another smart marketing move, as we plan to order it the next time.

As we finish lunch, another friend, hearing we’re at Nair’s Mess, SMSes to ask us to pack her a mutton biryani. They thoughtfully add a piece of tandoori chicken: another Nair’s Mess tradition.

The food may not always be spectacular — except for the fish fry which is always good — but it’s fresh, hot and fairly healthy. This explains why the restaurant is heaving with office goers by 1.30 p.m. Since the food is pretty close to home-cooking, a lot of these people eat here every day. Admittedly, there’s isn’t much for vegetarians. Well, other than affection. Thanks to the effusive waiters, there’s plenty of that for everyone!

Nair’s Mess is at 22, Mohammed Abdullah, 2nd Street, Chepauk. (Opposite the Cricket Stadium on Bells Road). A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 300. Call 2842 0850 for details.

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