Curry with a K. Oh dear. Assiduous alliteration can be astoundingly annoying. (See what I mean?) My first meal at Jaavid's Kebabs and Kurries was disappointing, so I was reluctant about returning. But this is the city's only Kashmiri restaurant, which makes it an important addition to Chennai's dining scene. And I figure they could have just been having a bad day.
The restaurant is empty when we enter at 8 p.m. It's a little unsettling to be the only diners. At first. We quickly realise that opens up a world of privileges. Like Goldilocks, I change tables thrice, till I find one that has optimum light and air-conditioning. The décor's absent minded but neat, with random Kashmir-inspired photographs at irregular intervals. The music's bubblegum pop. George Michael's ‘Careless Whispers'. We hear a waiter belt out the verses from the next room, as he drums on a handy table. “Coz I'm never gonna dance again. Guilty feelings got no rhythm.” I beam. Maudlin singing waiters? I like this place already.
There are other advantages to being the only diners. All the waiters — and I mean all — hover around us solicitously, pouring water, adjusting cutlery and waving menus. Unfortunately they're more decorative than informative, and are foxed when it comes to explaining the menu. They do, however, offer to call for the chef.
Chef Javid Ahmed's quietly earnest, always a good sign. He suggests we begin our meal with cups of soothing kahwa, bright with saffron and decorated with delicately sliced almonds.
The menu, on the other hand, looks like it's been written by an especially effusive high school cheerleader. The Raal Mel Talith, is reportedly “crunchy, spicy, tangy, crispy”. There's Tabaq maaz, lamb ribs boiled in milk and fried in ghee, described as “divinely delicious”. However, the prize entry is: “From the land of beautiful snow capped mountains, gushing rivers and of course aromatic spices, (comes this) boneless piece of chicken.” I almost expect it emerge from the mists in a kilt, brandishing a hefty sword in true Braveheart style.
Our meal begins with the Raal Mel Talith, vegetables cooked to an almost caramelly sweetness. Chef Javid (“only one A. There are two in the restaurant name because of numerology,” he grins) swears he's used nothing but Kashmiri chilli powder to season the dish, which is astonishing, given how complex the flavours and textures are. There's more inspired cooking ahead. Shammi kebabs, crusty outside and fluffy with cheese inside. And tender smoky chicken legs, wrapped in the heady aroma of charcoal.
The chef's special chicken seems overly oily, because of its heavy pastry-style coating. I'm equally unmoved by the powerful Kashmiri Rogan Josh, set in a smooth velvety gravy. Or the mutton Timbre Kebab, gleaming with caramelised onions. This is rich, robust food, more suited to the mountains than a Chennai summer. They offer goshtaba: meat and fat pounded, on a stone slab with a wooden mallet, to fine paste which is shaped into lamb dumplings. We eat them in a sour yoghurt sauce coloured with sun-dried mint. The texture, which is like a juicy sausage takes some getting used to.
Flavours are subtle, almost bashful. Chef Javid prides himself on the fact that he uses minimal spices. It's a nice change. If you concentrate, you can actually isolate and identify each distinct spice. Especially saffron, sweet and familiar, tasting of spring meadows.
The mutton pulao, cooked in mutton stock, is easy to appreciate, despite being unfamiliar. Reminiscent of Iranian pulao, it's chewy and even crunchy in bits, stained dark by the distinctive black cardamom pod. The waiters are humming ‘Wild World' as they bring us flaky wheat parathas and a spongy stuffed vegetable kulcha. “It's breakin' my heart you're leavin'/ Baby, I'm grievin'.” I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to order dessert in the midst of such heart break so I wait for the next track.
Fortunately it's Bryan Adam's ‘Everything I do, I do it for you,' which seems as good a song as any to eat phirni in time to. Chef Javid waits for me to enjoy a cold, creamy spoonful before he discloses it's made with potato. Like the Badam meetha, it's tasty but overwhelmingly sweet. There's also a baked Badami Lauz, perfumed with saffron and chunky with almonds. The star of the evening is Khubhani ka meetha, sweet stewed apricot pulp. “The staff bring us fresh fruit every time they travel,” smiles Chef Javid. Singing, apricot-carrying staff with a penchant for melodrama? How can you not eat here?
Jaavid's Kebabs and Kurries is at 18/28, Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Nungambakkam. For reservations call 43000535.