What makes the menu at Up North special is it's unapologetic simplicity!
It's all about running through the mustard fields. In far too many bangles and inappropriately heavy jewellery, of course. After all, Punjab, heartland of Bollywood romance, is all about clichés as far as popular culture goes.
This could explain why the vast array of Punjabi food has been abbreviated into a string of ghee and butter drenched ‘dhaba' favourites: dal makhani, butter chicken and biriyani. “We don't even eat biriyani!” says an annoyed chef Jugesh Arora. “It's North West Frontier food. Punjabis have rice may be once a week. The rest of the time it's tandoori roti, naans, paratha…” Determined to introduce Chennai to authentic Punjabi food, “just like my mother's”, chef Arora has created a ‘gharan da khaana' menu for the newly-opened restaurant Up North at The Raintree Hotel, Teynampet.
Executive chef of the city's two Raintree Hotels, he confesses he's a ‘Continental' chef by professional. “But, I have Punjabi cooking in my blood,” he declares holding up his hand, presumably so we can appreciate his veins throbbing with sarson ka saag. After this fittingly Bollywood moment, backed by a percussion-rich soundtrack throbbing from the restaurant's speakers, we're presented with a plate of blistering Amritsari machhi, fresh and flaky, covered with a crisp, thin batter of gramflour scattered with carom seeds, and deep fried in mustard oil.
A burst of flavours
There's Tandoori jheenga, slightly flabby and bland, despite its lemon juice and green cardamom marinade. Also chicken drumsticks, moist after a night of soaking up gently-spiced yoghurt. The thick wedges of paneer are velvety, with crisp tandoor-blackened edges.
The winner, however, is a corn kebab, poached and blended with green chillies before being cooked on a griddle, so it's crisp outside and mushy inside. Just spicy enough to make your mouth tingle, without the heat overpowering the flavours.
It's easy to believe that these are dishes made with regularity in homes across Punjab. They're light on oil and spice, simple and straightforward, without being weighed down by a need to be impressive or accessorised with exotica. This menu's advantage is its unapologetic simplicity. There are some glitches, though. The dahi bhalla was overly sweet and rather flat. The potato-cauliflower stir fry was over embellished. And honestly, they could do without the pretentious imported New Zealand lamb rack. But then, this is after all a five-star hotel, and some amount of posturing is, perhaps, inevitable.
The main course is a flurry of meats. Although chef Arora was determined to forge a new path through the food of his home State, he says he “didn't dare” leave out butter chicken, a terminal favourite. Yet, he suggests we try the murgh beli ram instead. Created by a master chef of the same name in Lahore, the chicken's delectably mild, slathered in a chiffon of delicate spices.
It's refreshing to see how the vegetable dishes stand up to the meat. Perhaps, this is because chef Arora comes from a vegetarian Punjabi family. The sarson ka saag is nice. So is the narangi pulao, glossy with ghee and laced with orange peel. We spoon it up with warm dal.
Set on the roof of the hotel, Up North bustles with life, the chatter punctuated by horns from the traffic far below. It's noisy, but also strangely relaxing: eating dessert a world away from the bad-tempered motorists.
We end with kulfi: its creaminess is juxtaposed with crisp slices of pistachio and chewy falooda. It's so lush we ask chef Arora his secret. Happy cows, apparently. Perhaps, they dream of dancing through the mustard fields too.
A meal for two costs about Rs. 2,000. Call 28309999 for reservations.