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The culture of food and service

`Atithi devo bhava' is the concept at Annalakshmi restaurant. It offers the guest not just wholesome food but a cultural experience as well.

TEMPLE AMBIENCE, TRADITIONAL FOOD: Annalakshmi serves vegetarian food. — Photos: K. Ramesh Babu

WALKING INTO Annalakshmi restaurant is like walking into a temple. For the place is designed like one. Open the wooden door with bells and enter the restaurant and the long rectangular hall with pillars and lamps/bells hanging on them remind one of temple corridors. The place too reverberates with a `sacred' aura. Devotional music and shloka recitations are played. A traditional ambience with ornate doors breaking the monotony of the walls, idols in wood and metal in niches, Kalamkari and Thanjavur glass paintings mounted on the walls and ceilings with squares of motifs like on temple walls greets the visitor. There is an idol of the goddess Annalakshmi at the farther end of the restaurant. Presence of this idol which is worshipped imparts the `holy' atmosphere.

Instead of the usual waiters one sees people serving. "Annalakshmi is the place of karmayoga," says Chandrashekhar, Director of Annalakshmi (at Chennai and Hyderabad). "All the people are devotees of Swami Shantananda Saraswati (a disciple of Sivananda) who volunteer to cook and serve. Our aim is to help people," he adds.

Annalakshmi is present in other cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Chennai and Coimbatore. The restaurant serves pure vegetarian food.

At Hyderabad the menu card is impressive - there is a variety of South Indian and North Indian fare. From juices (introduced recently), soups and starters to thalis and a la carte menu (which includes dosas and a range of rice dishes besides paneer, vegetables and rotis) there is something for every one. There are two thalis - Kadambari (priced at Rs. 75) and Rajyalakshmi (priced at Rs.150). The latter is a mix of North Indian and South Indian dishes.

DEVOTIONAL CORNER: The idol of Goddess Annalakshmi occupies pride of place.

Other novel items include thayir masala idli, Thengaiarisi sevai and some rice preparations like karivepalli sadam (curry leaves), ellu sadam (sesame seeds), vangi bhath (brinjal rice). Desserts include gulab jamun, gajar ka halwa, badam halwa and ice cream. And there is the `ambrosia' - the ubiquitous filter coffee besides masala tea, kesari doodh and hot chocolate. The food is homely - and not oily and spicy.

The volunteers are happy to serve people. "Annalakshmi is also into other charitable activities. In Chennai (under the Temple of Service) a mother and child-care centre provides free medical help till the child is three. As part of Temple of Knowledge education of poor children (both boys and girls) is sponsored. Those children who have the talent and inclination for fine arts are taught music (vocal and instrumental) and dance by the Temple of Fine Arts. While poor children get a fee waiver, others are charged Rs. 100," says Chandrashekhar. The Temple of Fine Arts presented classical dances at the Buddha Purnima festival recently in the city organised by the Department of Tourism.

There are other interesting introductions on the anvil in the restaurant. "The preethi bhojan (where food will be served in silver-coated thalis/cutlery), the rajyalakshmi service (where food will be served in silver thalis and cutlery) and swarnalakshmi service (which serves many dishes in gold thalis with gold cutlery) will be served shortly. One has to remember that advance booking should be done for the rajyalakshmi and swarnalakshmi service and the number should not exceed 25. From July 14 a high tea would be started only for corporate executives between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. For Rs. 150 they would be served coffee, tea and snacks. Sometime down the line Annalakshmi plans to serve Asian vegetarian food which will include dishes from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China," says Chandrashekhar.

A medical centre is being planned in the city. Funding education of the poor children is also being envisaged. On the cultural front a programme `Vishwa Vinayaka' will be staged by the Temple of Fine Arts at Shilpakalavedika on Ganesh Chaturthi. The Temple of Fine Arts will be subsequently opened at Shilparamam in the city.

So it's not just food at Annalakshmi - it's a whole gamut of service and culture - as the catchline of the restaurant is `Where dining is a cultural experience'. But remember to book a table (tel: 23745288, 55255699) to experience this. Atithi devo bhava is really taken seriously here.


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