For the past 25 years, Raintree at Taj Connemara has been experimenting with Chettinad cuisine without straying from its core taste

Another Chettinad meal. Meh. Let’s be honest. You need to be in a certain zone to enjoy this style of food: a meat-heavy cacophony of spices, amplified by lashings of chilli powder.

On the bright side, our reservations are at the mother ship — so to speak. About 25 years ago, Taj Connemara opened the city’s first serious Chettinad restaurant, expanding the Chennai culinary stereotype beyond idli-dosa-pongal. (Though over the past two decades, another stereotype was born — idli-dosa-pongal-mutton chukka-prawn varuval-pepper chicken.)

The old Raintree celebrated traditional Chettinad cooking with outdoor dining, loud music and folk artistes. A bit over the top for mid-week dining to be honest, so I’m relieved when I hear they’re resigned into a ‘contemporary’ space. We enter through a dramatic walkway lined with century-old carved stone pillars. For everyone under 30, I suppose the best description is — it looks like a scene from Temple Run. There’s the obligatory lady-frying- murukku outside, and knots of fresh jasmine inside. The standard chic indoor water body set against old-fashioned murals. Table vadams and chutney trolleys.

But then there are also charming coconut wood floors, exaggerated windows that open up the restaurant and jasmine martinis. Yes. Jasmine martinis. The Raintree’s new line of cocktails is the first of a string of welcome surprises. Fresh ingredients combined with skilful blending result in flavours that are subtle, refreshing and unique. We try karuvepillai martini, a fragrant muddle of vodka and curry leaves. And Raintree mace twist, with an unexpected hint of paan, despite the mace, gin and apple juice.

Under Chef Chandrassekaran the menu makes an attempt to go beyond clichés. So while popular Chettinad staples are available — and they should be since they’ve grown to define the cuisine — he doesn’t limit himself to hearty meats, loud spices and fistfuls of chilli. We eat juicy tiger prawns tossed in a dozen spices, including the cuisine’s distinctive Marathi mokku and kalpasi.

The delicate vegetarian dishes are particularly appealing. Fluffy idlis green with curry leaf powder, and redolent with the scent of ghee. An almost meaty mushroom curry, steeped in spices. Okra tossed with raw mango ginger, a bowl of big bold spices. And the ubiquitous mandi — a tasty casual blend of vegetables cooked in rice water and tamarind.

There is of course plenty of meat too. We gingerly taste crisp brown lady fish thorny with bones, then bland chewy scallops followed by delectable fish curry spiked with mangoes.

Country chicken, velvety with rich marinade. And mutton pulao, gleaming with ghee and big on flavour. Finally, we wallow in the simplest of pleasures — hot rice topped with a spoon of golden ghee and grainy garlicky podi.

Other than a brilliant banana appam topped with creamy cinnamon ice-cream, the stylish new-age desserts can’t stand up to Raintree’s classic elaneer payasam.

On the whole, this is a successful reinvention. Its greatest triumph is that the team has managed to create a format offering something for everyone. Food that’s chic, light and beautifully presented for the hipsters. But also food that doesn’t stray too far away from the core of Chettinad cuisine, which should make the traditionalists happy. An added bonus: they offer Samayal Thali cooked by honest-to-goodness real aachis for lunch. And yes. You can order a jasmine martini with that. Raintree is at the Taj Connemara. A meal for two costs roughly Rs. 3,000. The Aachi Samayal lunch thali costs Rs. 800 for vegetarians and Rs. 900 for non-vegetarians.