The road is a screaming tangle of furious traffic. And I mean furious. Bad- tempered cab drivers yelling at scowling bikers. Pedestrians shaking their fists at cyclists. Bus drivers honking madly at auto drivers as they lurch past dangerously. We rattle along the roads, replete with potholes and mud, bouncing about on the car seat like sacks of potatoes.
Then, we turn a corner, glide past the gilded gates, and everything changes.
Ironically, the crazy traffic does The Hilton a favour. After the storm outside, the lobby feels like an oasis. This sense of being wrapped in quiet luxury continues as we enter Ayna. The restaurant’s discreetly ornate, with muted colours and a mosaic of textures. Hardwood floors juxtaposed with patterned marble, glimmering velvet chairs in ivory set besides intricate lamps, brick walls against patterned glass. There’s a touch of Aladdin’s cave, despite the clean contemporary lines. Luxury, as any designer of haute couture will tell you, is in the details. The details are what Ayna concentrates on.
Waiters snap to attention as we walk in, guiding us to our seats. The restaurant looks like a gentleman’s club, filled with business men, presumably unwinding after a hard day of work, ties loosened and designer jackets lovingly hung beside them. Ayna’s grown-up ambience is more relax than ‘chillax’, thank heavens. Fine dining, with its posh frills, fish knives and champagne flutes, has a distinctive charm. More than just a break from the screech and squabble of everyday life, it’s an excuse to slip away, suspend reality and be whoever you want, for the space of one night.
Unfortunately, acting posh is next to impossible, since I’m having a sneeze-attack. And believe me, there is no way to sneeze glamorously. The chefs take pity on me, they send me tomato shorba soup, zingy with pepper. It’s dangerously hot and spicy, perfect for my cold. My ears ring as the spices hit the back of my throat with a satisfying urgency. I’m finally ready for dinner.
We nibble through a heavy kebab platter. Ayna lamb chops, slathered in a paste of ginger, garlic and whole spices, and baked in a tandoor till the masalas envelope the meat in a rich, luscious hug. There are jumbo prawns, springy with freshness, and a fairly ordinary chicken, darkened with squid ink. Although the ink doesn’t really add anything in terms of flavour, it’s an interesting indication of a kitchen that’s willing to think out of the box. Which explains the Dahi ki kebab, an unusual yogurt patty made with thick hung curd that’s spiked with yellow chilli powder and chaat masala. Its cheesy creaminess is highlighted by its crusty exteriors. There are also triangles of paneer interspersed with the subtle sweetness of apricots.
Ayna’s mission statement is to revisit original recipes and traditional methods of cooking. Chef Vijay Singh Rawat, who is chef de cuisine, along with sous chef Somnath, and the rest of his team concentrate on taking central ideas, ingredients and flavours from regional Indian cooking, and then put a modern spin on them.
The main course is a flaky Zafrani paronthi naan, liberally dusted with poppy seeds. It’s served with a hefty mutton curry from Bengal, zesty with patiently cooked down spices and a basic yellow dal. Although spices are unapologetically loud, there’s clarity in technique. They’re layered respectfully instead of just being bunged together.
The meal ends with a dessert platter. Powerfully sweet and spongy chhena payesh, a light wobbly lagan nu custard and tiny caramelised cashew nut-topped appams. There’s also kulfi, punchy with orange juice.
We finish with paan, served with all the trimmings including dried coconut, rose petal preserve and “limestone”. I figure I’m losing my hearing, an unexpected side effect of my cold. “Limestone?” Yes, grins, the waiter, reminding me that ‘chuna’ is a classic paan ingredient.
They really are all about the details here. “We serve it with honey though,” he says, adding sincerely, “It just wouldn’t look nice to give guests a plain bowl of chuna.” At The Hilton? Certainly not! Though I would love to see the look on the faces of those Armani-clad businessmen as they delicately dip in a spoon.
Ayna, at The Hilton in Ekkaduthangal, opens only for dinner. They’re currently offering a set ‘Chef’s menu’ for Rs. 1,750 (plus taxes) per head. Call 2225 5555 for reservations.