Chennai's 'Paati Veedu': When Grandma beats fine dining

The hottest table in town right now is not at a bar. Or a neon nightclub. Or an edgy modernist restaurant. It’s set in a discreet house on a quiet street in T Nagar.

You can’t order martinis, sliders or deconstructed desserts. You can order arachuvitta sambar. Also, drumstick rasam, poriyal and thayir saadham.

The success of Paati Veedu, which opened a few week ago, is a pleasant surprise. In a dining scene seemingly dominated by bar-hopping, dim sum-eating, globe-trotting millennials, it’s reassuring to see straightforward home cooking being celebrated.

Chennai's 'Paati Veedu': When Grandma beats fine dining

G Mohandas and his wife Sangeetha greet us as we enter the space, laid out like a traditional home. The setting is decorous without being pompous, punctuated by quirky touches from a trio of old-fashioned ceiling fans to a graceful tree-of-life fresco. Right now, they offer just one set menu, which comes in multiple courses. In keeping with the ‘paati veedu’ mission statement, the food is simple, served with only essential accompaniments such as vadams, ghee and a slew of grainy podis.

However, the plating is modern and stylish; a sensible concession to not just their varied clientèle, but also Generation Instagram. Our meal begins with a trio of starters. There’s vadai, soaked in rich, velvety sambar. Defiantly springy little kozhukottais speckled with mustard and laced with the flavour of fresh curry leaves. Finally, a bonda, served with a smidgen of chutney. The flavours are clear, and each dish made with the confidence that comes from years of cooking.

Chennai's 'Paati Veedu': When Grandma beats fine dining

So it’s not surprising to learn that Tara, Mohandas’ mother, has joined forces with the chefs to design the menu. She positively radiates grandmotherly vibes as she puts her arm around me and patiently explains each recipe. I invite her to join us for lunch, and she pats my head then shrugs, “No, no. I’m going home to eat keerai kuzhambu now.” A trio of glasses arrives next. There’s nannari, made from the sarsaparilla herb, which is cloyingly sweet. Coconut water, dominated by the unnecessary strong flavour of honey. And some rather thin watermelon juice. The tray looks pretty, but it’s a classic case of style over substance.

Fortunately, the rest of the menu, built on generations of family meals, is precise and logical. The next course features adai with white butter and jaggery. And a delicate squiggle of springhoppers served with stew. It is followed by a thali featuring beautifully balanced drumstick rasam, redolent with ghee and tart with tamarind. There’s white pumpkin, cooked with just coconut and green chillies. And an addictive chutney made with ridge gourd, fried and ground with roasted black gram, red chillies and asafoetida.

Dessert arrives: a fudgy ‘theratti paal’ rich with milk and dark, smoky ‘karupatti’ halwa. Even five years ago, selling curd rice in Chennai at what is even now perceived as a designer price tag (lunch is ₹ 849) may have been difficult. But this is an age that celebrates regional cooking. Tourists, NRIs and corporate clients would have once been the mainstay of a restaurant like this. But today, how many are lucky enough to have grandmothers who cook this way? Even for staunch traditionalists who “can make it at home for free”, it’s just so much easier to eat a multi-course meal at a restaurant.

“We wanted to start it in Chennai because this is the difficult market,” says Mohandas. “This is our baptism by fire.” Catering to this audience meant there was no room for error. Chennai’s customers may forgive a lopsided pesto pasta, but no Mylapore aunty is going to tolerate a sloppy sambar. “We took more than a year to perfect the recipes, to source good ghee, vadams, podis etc.” He adds, “I wanted it to feel like home. But we didn’t want it to be old and drab. Not just for the younger crowd... Paatis are becoming so swanky these days. We get lots of them: they come in gangs and swagger around.” And that’s the final word really. The paatis like it.

The article has been corrected for a spelling error.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 10:08:20 AM |

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