Shonali Muthalaly reviews Madurai Arulanandam — a spice-and-curry Chettinad joint in T.Nagar.

I’m being left out. I now know for sure. It was a sneaking suspicion at first. But I just assumed I was being paranoid. All my chef buddies seemed to clam up when I entered the room. Apparently, I’m giving away their secrets. Now chefs inevitably talk about one thing when they get together: Food. Where to eat, what to order, how it’s made. All of them have their favourite little dives, tucked in unexpected nooks and corners of the city. Places that nobody but the neighbourhood shopkeepers and salesmen know about — where lunch costs less than Rs 150 per head, and you never have to wait for a table.

“She ruins them,” one chef hisses to the other, when they think I’m not listening. “Writes about it, and then the crowds descend.” The other chef nods, and they quietly start to edge out of the room, hoping I don’t notice. “Let’s go eat biryani. I’ve discovered this awesome little place.” In a flash I attach myself to their aprons, and claw my way into the car, squealing with delight: “Did someone say biryani?” They roll their eyes and sigh loudly. It’s a good thing I’m not sensitive!

We drive into T. Nagar through a tangle of angry traffic. Somewhere in the middle of a crowded street, the chefs signal the driver to stop for a minute, and jump out of the car hurriedly. We are opposite a massive Saravana stores, which flaunts an inexplicable mini version of Singapore’s Merlion in front. Walking through a crowded lane, we pass plump women with assiduously oiled hair selling sliced raw mango dusted with blazing red chilly powder. Besides them sit the jamun sellers, with neat packets filled with the deep purple fruit. We eventually turn and enter a grimy passage, behind a man carrying a massive sack of rice. He walks through a door, above which is emblazoned in fiery red: “My presence will go with you always.” “This is it,” beam the chefs. “Madurai Arulanandam.”

Cheerful owner, R. Ebinezer is behind the reception counter, crowded with a plethora of desk top calendars, a gleaming tray piled high with ‘special’ beeda, each packed in its own ziplock case, and a bunch of wilting plastic roses, dusty with age. The utilitarian restaurant flooded with business-like white light, and bustling with fuss free furniture has some incongruous touches of whimsy: neon paper stars, a poster of a puppy with a quizzical expression, and best of all a spoon with a handle shaped like Mickey Mouse, complete with jazzy red shoes and perky blue ears.

As the waiter ladles hot biryani onto my banana leaf with his Mickey Mouse spoon, we read through the menu which offers all the usual pop-Chettinad dishes: Chicken 65, fish fry, mutton sukka fry and a plethora of ‘Chinese’ from mutton fried rice to prawn noodles. However, the reason this place is chef-approved is because the food is very different from what you get in your average spice-and-curry Chettinad joint. Influenced by Madurai, it’s less spicy, with fewer chillies and far less pepper. This kitchen also prides itself on home-style cooking, so spices are subtle, flavours are balanced and oil is restrained. The biryani, made with basmati rice, has generous chunks of well browned meat. It comes with a full bodied mutton gravy, creamy with coconut milk. We try the sukka fry, which is also in a thick gravy generously flavoured with small onions, garlic and coriander. And a liver fry, dark and meaty. However, the star performer is undoubtedly their mutton kola urundai, with finely minced meat, grainy chana dal and a crisp exterior laced with well browned onions.

We also order a ‘veg meal’ featuring a simple cabbage chunky with dal and a big pot of rasam which is placed at the centre of the table with a flourish by the efficient waiter. Made with dal water, it’s cloudy and comforting. We pour it into our rice, till little rivulets start running down the banana leaves. As the meal ends, the chefs start grading the food. “7 on 10” says one. The other kicks him under the table and says, “No. No. Say 4.”

Fortunately I’m too busy taking down the phone number and address to be dissuaded. But let’s keep this between us. Or I may not be taken out for lunch ever again.

Madurai Arulanandam is at 94/1, Usman Road, T Nagar. A meal costs roughly 250 per head. Call 2431 5223 for more details.