The guy in a checked shirt unwraps his present. It's a checked shirt. He looks delighted nonetheless. Perhaps, like Simi Garewal, he's found a signature style. He opens the menu with a celebratory air. A waiter materialises at his side. “So,” he says, thoughtfully rolling up the sleeves on his checked shirt, “shall we ‘check' the menu?” The three girls he's with giggle delightedly at his wit, all suitably impressed. Somewhere Russell Peters is quaking.
At this point I'm forced to stop eavesdropping. My waiter's hovering about solicitously waving a hefty menu. Moti Mahal has been drawing crowds ever since it opened a couple of weeks ago. The crowds are refreshingly diverse. Besides Checked Shirt Chronicles on my right, I spot an elegant old couple delicately eating kebabs, a gang of Americans digging into tandoori chicken and an oversized family with a penchant for dal.
The original Moti Mahal in Delhi claims to be the inventor of — trumpet call — butter chicken, dal makhni and tandoori chicken. That's a lot of feathers in one cap. (Pun unintended.) The restaurant's flagship opened in Delhi in 1975, after which it quickly spread in the form of franchises across the country. The Chennai restaurant features spacious but carefully bland interiors, monochrome with startlingly gaudy wall hangings.
Our waiter swings between being fondly avuncular and snippily impatient — a sort of Dumbledore meets Voldemort affair. Fortunately he's at the avuncular stage when we order: warm and helpful. I appreciate the fact that he doesn't push us to pick the most expensive things on the menu, and stops us when he feels we're going overboard. “Madam, I don't know how much you eat,” he hems and haws delicately, “But this might be too much.” It's a relief to be able to trust your waiter. Far too many restaurants encourage staff to push customers to run up big bills.
This restaurant seems designed more to make people feel comfortable than wow them. Checked shirt at the next table is already on backslapping terms with the menu, confidently ordering a long list of food with delicate adjustments: “I want gravy taste to be different for veg and non-veg. Nicely put ghee, ok? No diet-wiet here. Haan. And lots of raw onions.”
I silently sympathise with the girls he's with, but quickly get distracted. As waiter after waiter passes by with platters of sizzling food, the air thickens with the scent of smoky barbeque. Although we ordered vegetable sheekh kebabs, our meal begins with tandoori paneer since Dumbledore-Vodlemort has got the order mixed up. I point it out politely but am quickly quelled by a cold stare. The paneer is delicious, creamy with crisp edges, deftly marinated so the spices enhance flavour.
Our waiter's back in a good mood when he brings the main course, and we flatter him ingratiatingly, cooing and gasping over his skill in balancing plates. Portions are so big they're almost intimidating. So big that despite all my posturing I eat less than one naan, generously slathered in garlic and mint. There's dal makhni, of course, served in a dinky brass bucket. It's toothsome and rich without oozing butter. Not the best dal makhni I've tasted, but certainly better than most pretenders. The butter chicken's rather tomato-heavy, resulting in the more subtle flavours being drowned. As legend goes Indian classics like this need to be made a hundred times before they taste just right. I'm guessing the kitchen's still at No. 65.
Most of the food resonates with the distinctive smokiness that makes tandoori food so special. More importantly, nothing oozes oil, butter or ghee. I'm not naïve enough to assume that this is health food. (Though to be fair, kebabs are actually diet-approved.) But I do know that my fingers aren't stained with food colour and sticky with sludge after the meal. A good enough reason to return.
Hopefully Voldemort will be in a better mood by then. He dropped his Dumbledore prefix by dessert time when I decided to share my almond-studded kulfi and asked for an extra plate.
Moti Mahal is at 7 Jagannathan Road, Nungambakkam. Call 42137540 for details.
Keywords: Moti Mahal