Just along the Sterling Road bend outside Loyola College now stands a swanky, week-old restaurant dressed in fairy lights, with its name proudly proclaimed in bold red: Maplai. It is the brainchild of Vinod Rajan (fondly called maplai), a Chennai man, mad enough about food to drive down to his hometown, Madurai, every other day just to savour its signature street food. Until he met restaurant consultant, ‘Mad Chef’ Koushik, that is. Koushik recreated Madurai for Vinod right here in Chennai, over three months and 250-odd dishes that drew from the four South Indian states’ cuisines as well. Maplai (a term used to address a son-in-law or brother-in-law), today, is the product born of these two friends’ penchant for good food and a full stomach.
A quick glance at the restaurant's menu will tell you they’ve respected the traditional staples and spun their own fine-dining take on others, often fusing cuisines, cooking styles and methods. Our meal opens with the simple and wholesome nandu rasam, good health oozing from its peppery broth, followed by the naatu kozhi egg drop soup, which is far more oil-heavy and spicy in comparison. It’s with the starters though, that Koushik lets his imagination roam free. For instance, continental meets South Indian cuisine, with his Chettinad ‘bashed potatoes’: mouthfuls of the softest baby potatoes, tawa-tossed with a glitter of Chettinad masala on their brown skins, served with a garlic dip that counterbalances the spice burst. He springs a similar trick in the grilled prawns and curry butter sauce, the conventional lemon sauce accompaniment modified here with basic curry masalas.
For the less adventurous, Maplai offers the fairly straightforward kaigari vepudu , vegetables batter-fried with extra jeera, fennel and curry leaf, and the kozhi ka thakali , fiery-looking chicken juliennes that surprise you with their mild, sweet flavour. The winner here, hands down, is the mutton gaadi chops — plain and simple mutton ribs fried with red chilli and garam masala, the meat crispy on the outside and silky-soft inside courtesy a good boil before the frying pan. Just for the experience, though, try the Thanjavur kair katti gola , made by Amma, a lady from Thanjavur said to have cooked for Sivaji Ganesan. Amma spends her days at Maplai, hand-plucking meat off boiled mutton legs and grinding it with heaps of small onions. A dash of masala later, the mix is rolled into balls, tied with banana strands and deep fried. Try it for the sheer drama of unpacking the gola before you bite into its coarse texture.
In its beaten brass cutlery, photographs of Thrissur Pooram elephants, copper-plated interiors and Kollywood background scores, Maplai breathes a generically South-Indian atmosphere, but its heart is clearly lost to Madurai, as our main course reveals.
The city’s classic curry dosai arrives, sliced into pizza-like triangles topped with generous meat and eggs, and for company, there’s thick mutton thokku gravy. It’s with the sundakkai nethili kozhambu , though, that one may as well be seated cross-legged on the floor of a Madurai home scooping handfuls of boiled white rice with the slender, minimally-fleshy fish curry. Dinner closes with the three-way vattalappam , essentially three blobs of caramel custard in deepening shades of brown thanks to the sugar, jaggery or palm jaggery that flavours it.
As a parting shot, there’s a mighty glass of rich jigarthanda that leaves us with that sweet lingering taste of Madurai’s greatest claim to food fame.
A meal for two is priced at Rs. 800. Maplai is at 14, Sterling Avenue, Nungambakkam