We go upstairs. We go downstairs. We even consider eating in the car. Then change our mind when we realise the neighbouring vehicle is filled with massive moustachioed men, taking furtive swigs from a newspaper-wrapped bottle, teamed with little packets of pickle. “Oooh. Touchings,” I squeal excitedly. I’m eternally fascinated by the infamous alcohol-pickle combination, popular in the city’s dodgy dives. My friend is less amused. “Shameless fellows,” she hisses, glaring at them. “That too at 3 in the afternoon! We should tell their mothers.”
Inside, Buhari is teeming with families. I worry that my friend might follow through on her threat. She’s scrutinising each table to identify the mothers of those unfortunate lushes. Although it’s well past lunchtime, there are rows of chairs filled with people patiently waiting for tables. Upstairs, in the AC section, the line is even longer. We finally settle for ‘takeaway.’ Their signature mutton biriyani, served in a neat plastic tray, with raita and a hard boiled egg. Made with fluffy long grain basmati, it’s spicy, but skilfully balanced in a way that comes only with practice. And they’ve had a lot of practice! After all this has been one of Chennai’s favourite places to eat since the early 1950s. Even if it’s considerably less glamorous now, portions are generous and the staff are genuinely warm.
The waiter insists we try their chicken 90. According to urban legend, Buhari invented the ubiquitous chicken 65. As one story goes, it was the 65th item on their menu. Another explanation for the name is that it was launched in 1965. Today the menu boasts fish 65, prawn 65 and – hold your breath – gobi 65. As for the chicken 90? Despite the lack of an accompanying story, it’s delicious — deep fried, boneless and fiery red. As we leave, we’re directed through a sweltering room, filled with Buhari’s baked goods. Moist slices of rich plum cake. Pillowy white buns dotted with raisins. And unsteady piles of generously buttered buns stained red with sticky mixed fruit jam.
Later in the week, I check out Charminar. Its claim to fame is a biriyani eating contest, held to crown the ‘Raja and Rani of biriyani.’ Not really something you would want on your resume, I’d imagine. But apparently, it draws crowds. Despite its enthusiastic ‘Raja-Rani’ posters, the restaurant is fairly drab. Set beside a men’s parlour (because who wants a raja with unkempt eyebrows and open pores, right?), the restaurant is redolent with the scent of air freshener. As we enter, its music system comes to life with a polite cough, then proceeds to blare out Remo Fernandes’ ‘Maria pita che’. In the corner there are two inexplicable red balloons, looking like embarrassed guests who just realised they’re at the wrong dinner party.
Despite its lack of an identity, the solicitous staff makes this feel like a friendly ‘family restaurant’. They seat us by the big picture windows, from where we watch people haggle over golden piles of ripe mangos at Pazamudhir Cholai across the street.
Our meal begins with vegetable kebabs, packed with carrots, beans, potatoes and slivers of garlic. They’re light but gratifying, with a pleasingly crisp exterior. The garlic fish arrives next. Although it’s tender and flaky, the marinade hasn’t soaked into the whole kebab. Biriyani comes in a range of styles here. Their specialty is biriyani with a mix of mutton and chicken, but that seems ridiculously decadent. So we order chicken biriyani. The basmati is supple, fragrant and fluffy, but there’s a touch too much cardamom. It’s also surprisingly robust, with an overwhelming amount of spices. Hyderabadi biriyani is famous for its restraint, and subtlety, with its layers of delicate rice and tender meat. While Charminar’s version is tasty, it feels like a compromise made to satisfy Chennai’s spice hunters. What they should do, instead, is revel in being different and play to their strengths. Since the popular khubani ka meetha is sold out, we settle for gulab jamuns: steaming, sticky, satisfying.
Buhari is on Mount Road. (They have other branches too.) Call 42028892. A generous serving of biriyani is roughly Rs.150.
Charminar is on Lloyds Road, Gopalpuram. Call 28111007. A meal for two costs about Rs. 600.