The food at Parambriym is earnest, straight forward, and more importantly, stays close to its roots

You had better enjoy the biriyani. Every mouthful. Because it got Anitha Sivakumar an earful. “It had to be perfect,” she says, as we settle down for dinner at her newly opened restaurant Parambriym. “So for the past few months, I've been cooking from 6 a.m., trying different versions. I was so busy I couldn't go to the gym for weeks. Finally my personal trainer came home, and found me eating a plateful of biriyani. At 7 a.m.!”

Her fierce determination to get “it right” seems to have paid off. The food at Parambriym is earnest and straight forward. “People don't link my food to a place. They link me to a person. They say my cooking reminds me of their mothers, grandmothers… I take that as a great compliment,” says Anitha, as we're served small glasses of rose-scented soda. “This soda's a tradition in a deep South. It's been around since 1926, and is slowly dying out. I'm trying to revive the tradition,” says Anitha. It tastes like a hippy love-child of Sprite and rose water, a little bewildering and jaw-clenchingly sweet.

Great start

Our meal begins with egg kheema paniyarams, featuring minced meat wrapped in a fluffy omelette. Served steaming hot, the egg is an unexpectedly apt foil for a scorching centre. The march of starters continues with pepper chicken, darkened with freshly ground pepper and crisp with fried rava. Prawns on skewers make a dramatic entrance, topped with an artsy spring of coriander. Each prawn is wrapped in a brittle shell of spicy batter that breaks open to reveal searing coral flesh.

Parambriym's masalas are made in-house. Hence, instead of that blanket masala that's made genres such as Chettinad food or Andhra food so standard, each dish tastes unique. While the food does have heat, it's layered intelligently, balancing flavours instead of drowning them out. The kheema urundai, for example, is powered with the distinctive flavour of green chillis, but backed up with the lush mint and coriander.

Parambriym's setting is fairly contemporary, despite a profusion of old brass vessels and oil paintings. With no particular character, it currently feels like a restaurant in search of a soul. The food's refreshingly unpretentious. Probably because it stays close to its roots. After all, it was born as a 10-by-10-ft takeaway, specialising in ‘combo meals' about a year ago.

“When my children moved out, I was bored. So I started making packed meals for fun. Mutton combos, chicken combos…” says Anitha, about how she started by making 10 packed lunches a day from her kitchen at home, helped by just her cook. ‘We ended up making 60 meals. We served lunch and dinner, seven days a week.” There's a stunned silence at the table. Finally someone articulates what everyone's thinking. “And that was fun?” “Oh yes,” she trills, “and in the evenings the menu was completely different — parottas, idlis, kara kozhambu.” She pauses thoughtfully, “But nothing for vegetarians.”

If you're vegetarian, there's not much for you at the swish new Parambriym either. We try deep fried cauliflower, which is oily and dejected, crumbled into tiny pieces. The paniyaram seems rather bland, served with a feeble chutney the colour of weak tea.

Our meal bounces back with tender mutton chops swaddled in a gravy with deep, concentrated flavour. It overpowers the chicken kuruma, which is nice but innocuous. We eat parathas that manage to be both crisp and fluffy. There are also appams with big, spongy centres and plates of lacy idiyapam. There's only ice cream for dessert right now, but Anitha promises payasam soon.

Meanwhile, she's busy making plans to visit the Kasimedu fish market the next day. “It's so beautiful. Stretch after stretch of fish — and so many types. The fish from the catamarans is better than the fish from the trawler, since it's just a few hours old,” she says. “You have to come back and try our fish. It's excellent.”

Right now, the restaurant's biggest advantage is her enthusiasm and energy. Consistency is always a challenge, and will be even more so here with Anitha's home recipes, which discourage short cuts and easy masalas from jars. Yet, we're hoping this works. Especially at these prices. Because those kheema urundais are addictive.

(Parambriym is at Ispahani Centre, Nungambakkam. Call 044 2833-0202 for more details. A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 500)

(View the video here bit.ly/shonali-parambriym)