We smell Kudumbam before we see it. It's the scent of coconut oil: lush, intense and unapologetically powerful. For every other part of India, coconut oil might symbolise head massages and banana chips. For a Malayalee, it's a far more primeval scent. It conjures up languid lunches featuring puffy pappadums teamed with red rice and warm avial fragrant with coconut oil.
I stand on the road taking deep breaths like a tourist at a mountain resort. I'm even more at home when I spot Kudumbam's verandah. With its gleaming planter's chair supporting an antique walking stick, it provides an authentic Kerala-setting. The theme continues inside, with beautifully recreated interiors. There's a traditional nalukettu, a staple of the old Kerala tharavadu, featuring an open courtyard that floods the room with natural light. A sturdy cupboard bursts with pickles and jams, all made in Kottayam. On top of the cupboard balances a line of glass jars filled with tea-shop snacks: sweet rose cookies, sesame-speckled kuzhalappams and crisp churoti dusty with powdered sugar.
Calling itself Kerala's first boutique restaurant, Kudumbam has been painstakingly put together, with rich details and thoughtful touches. As the resident flautist plays, we wander through and are finally seated at a table upstairs, one of the many quiet nooks in the restaurant which has been intelligently divided into sections to maximise privacy. Unfortunately the acoustics let them down — loud voices tend to echo here — so it can feel rather chaotic when packed.
Our waiter's friendly but vague. He seems perpetually preoccupied with more important matters. World peace, perhaps. He hands us our menus, knocks over my water, apologises profusely and wanders away. For the next half-an-hour we see him at odd intervals, waving shyly from a distance. When he finally turns up we order in a rush before he can canter away. The menu focuses on food that Malayalees are passionate about, from the well-known Syrian beef fry to lesser known items such as sun-dried beef that's then crushed and stir-fried. There's fish, of course. All the local favourites: Kalanchi, Neymeen, Karimeen and Ayoli. Also prawns and squid, besides Kerala's fast food — Trivandrum fried chicken, laced with red pepper and roasted coconut. And, of course, duck roast, a staple at festive lunches and dinners. I pick a Kerala meal, which arrives in ten minutes, grandly presented on a leaf-shaped plate. Strangely the rice is lukewarm and every other accompaniment is cold. As a result the food is rather lacklustre. The avial, a tumble of bright vegetables generously showered with shredded coconut, redeems the meal. It helps that our waiter's now become part of the family and hovers around endearingly, offering to bring bowls of dal which he insists we spike with generous dollops of golden ghee.
We also order squid fry and okra, but both turn out rather disappointing since they're cloaked in an inexplicable bhaji-style batter. Our Kerala parathas are appropriately flaky and go well with the prawn-mango curry, which is tasty if over-embellished with acres of onions. There's a deftly-spiced koottu curry, featuring the ubiquitous Kerala kadala — which are like black chickpeas — along with juicy brinjal. It goes beautifully with red rice. There are payasams to end the meal — ada, semiya, broken wheat, split gram — besides carrots, jackfruit and beetroot halwa. If you get here at tea time they also offer a wide range of snacks, including the addictive ethaka appam, ripe golden Kerala bananas encased in a crisp batter. Perfect with a cup of scalding, thick, sweet Kerala chai.
Kudumbam is at 156, Kodambakkam High Road. Call 28212821 or 28212822 for more details or reservations.