We're headed to Junior Kuppanna. I suspect my friends have chosen this restaurant for lunch just because they like saying the name. At every opportunity, they slow the car down and bellow ‘Junior Kuppanna?' at startled passers-by. Passing a men's beauty parlour featuring a massive poster of Leonardo Di Caprio for the third time we finally realise we're lost. The three guys I'm with seem positively delighted at this turn of events. Now every passing auto driver is accosted with cries of ‘Junior Kuppanna?' I slide low in the car seat hoping we don't bump into anyone I know. By now I'm convinced this is an elaborate practical joke, and the restaurant is just an excuse for my friends to make an exhibition of themselves in the heart of T. Nagar.
Incredibly, we eventually pull up outside the restaurant. I'm still a little suspicious. Like a busy clinic, it's got two neatly arranged rows of plastic chairs in front, filled with patiently waiting customers. As we walk in, we realise this is for the takeaway counter, run with relaxed efficiency. Directed to a lift, we emerge on the first floor, with a meticulously organised kitchen on the left and massive dining area on the right. Through the open kitchen door, neatly dressed cooks with face masks zealously stir, boil and fry. Noticing me peeping, they invite me in for an impromptu tour of the neatly laid out stations. A kitchen that's so proudly open is always a good sign. Only a restaurant completely confident about its hygiene levels will allow random customers to snoop around.
The main dining hall is a surprise. Bright and clean, it features rows of regimented tables and chairs, each section watched keenly by a waiter. This isn't just a restaurant. It's an enterprise. Think ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. Except this is more like ‘Kupanna and the Chukka Factory'.
My dining companions fall on the menu like wolves. The ‘meals' — served on banana leaves — arrive first, resplendent with bowls of sambar, coconut-flecked poriyal and piping hot rasam chunky with tomato. Then comes Pallipalayam chicken, spiced with a simple balance of shallots, garlic and red chillies, all cooked in a sensible amount of oil. Granted, ‘offering home-cooked food' is the biggest restaurant cliché. But this food is close to what emerges from a home kitchen, since it's made with patience and precision. A chat with ‘Junior' P. Arumugam (as his business card proudly states) reveals that the original restaurant was started in 1960 in Erode by his parents, Kuppusamy and Rukmani Mudaliar. His mother still supervises the blending and grinding of the masalas that go into the food. When they opened their first branch in Coimbatore, Arumugam's brother ‘Junior Moorthy' excitedly tells us he thought up the name “Junior Kuppanna, since we're the sons of Kuppusamy”.
Since I'm with adventurous eaters, all kinds of things find their way to our table. Brain, sizzling with masala, velvety and unctuous. Boneless chicken wrapped in a shell of deep fried, deep orange batter. Omlettes chunky with onions. (Far too many onions for my liking.) Mutton biryani, with traditional short grain rice drenched in the flavours of meat and ghee. And ‘thalai gravy'. Since I don't know what it is, I try a couple of bites and am quickly put off by its unfamiliar texture. Later I find out it's mutton head, which along with mutton kudal (intestines) is extremely popular in the South. Well, at least I know what not to order next time.
As the meal ends, we're served small bowls of deliciously thick, cool curd set like a soufflé. The waiter looks worried as we order more and more of it. “But, you won't have room for payasam,” he sniffs, sadly. So my friends order payasam, sweet and slick with golden-brown vermicelli interspersed with crunchy cashew nuts and chubby raisins.
I head back a few days later with my notebook to do a more thorough job, and check out the dinner menu. My waiter takes down my order on an iPod Touch. “See madam, all connected through WiFi,” he grins, showing me his slick 4th generation model. There's a dinner menu, with egg, onion and ghee dosas, besides all the usual suspects, including the self explanatory ‘empty biryani.' We order fried fish, which turns out to be rather stale and tasteless. Fortunately there's also naadu chicken fry, cooked till brown and caramelly and topped with crisp curry leaves.
Portions are small and cheap, which allows you try a variety of dishes. The service is friendly and quick. But Junior Kuppanna's master stroke is its ability to take well-loved traditions and recipes from Tamil Nadu's deep south, and present them with contemporary flair.
The restaurant is at Kannaya Street, North Usman Road, T. Nagar, Chennai-600017. Call 04428340071 or 04428340072 for details.