Friday, July 23, 2010

Biriyani Binge - Chasing Chennai's best biriyani

Hello me hearties. Firstly, many thanks on the positive feedback and constructive criticism to my last top 5  story on the best Sambar in Chennai. I am glad you acknowledge that my lists are nothing but personal opinion coated with a layer of generalization to serve as nothing more than a guide to your gastronomic experiences.

One of the outlets we tried on
Kutchery Road, Mylapore!

Even as I was reaching the tail end of my Sambar trail, I had already decided my next top 5 list – Biriyani! Undoubtedly one of the finest representatives of Indian cooking, the biriyani occupies a special place in almost every person’s heart as a defacto selection when eating out or on a Sunday afternoon at home.

In sync with the diverse nature of our great country comes a host of schools of this iconic rice delicacy. The most popular school in Chennai is the (comparatively) light, mildly spiced Ambur variety which finds its place in street-side outlets to the fancy five-stars of the city, followed by the “real, original” Hyderabadi  Biriyani.
During this trail, I was joined by my comrades – Rohit Koliyot and Videep Vijay Kumar – both great friends and with well trained taste buds. We covered no less than 14 different options including Ajmal Biriyani, Mughal Zaikaa, Velu Military, Buhari, Dindigul Thalappakkati, Amaravathi, Sanabel, Kalyani, Anjappar, The Park’s 601, Ponnusamy, Paramount, Cosmo Club, Samco, House of Biriyani, Asif & Bros and Taj Coromandel’s Anise. The final cut presented here is a summation of our experiences weighted the closest we could come to agree upon. There was never a clear majority and that, we hope, will create a pleasant problem of plenty for all of you.

Chennai’s top 5 Biriyanis, in no particular order:

Mughal Zaikaa – Most of you must be wondering where the hell this is. But our wonderful adventure seeking the epitome of biriyani greatness culminated in this quaint little joint located behind Ega theatre, just off Vasu Street. Serving biriyani of the Ambur style, Mughal Zaikaa’s biriyani was amongst the best all-round preparations we tasted. The fragrance of each spice with the zest of saffron and perfectly cooked mutton came together to give us one of Chennai’s best biriyanis.
    o Try with: Chicken masala, Phirni (dessert)
    o Call: 28588902
    o Comments: No air-conditioning, No home-delivery

601 @ The Park – It’s rare for any top 5 list to include outlets from five-star hotels. Among many reasons, the food’s never really uber authentic, the price is prohibitive and at some other times, it’s just the most obvious choice. But all of that changed with the Lucknow Mutton Biriyani (LMB) at The Park’s coffee shop – 601. Easily Chennai’s best dhum biriyani, the LMB stays true to its traditional Awadhi roots and the layered style of the preparation is unmistakable, with the meat layer sandwiched between two thick layers of fine, long grain basmati rice of the highest quality. A must try when you feel like eating out towards the start of the month!

    o Try with: the Raita – its special! Carrot Halwa for afterwards.
    o Call: 42676000

Dindigul Thalappakatti Biriyani – Yes you’ve seen this place while commuting to work or during your weekend shopping. But trust us when we say that their vulgar red branding is no reflection of the Biriyani they are so famous for. Intent on creating a new school of biriyani, the Dindigul biriyani is a unique combination of fabulously cooked meat made using Seeraga Samba rice instead of the usual basmati rice. This rice is generally of shorter grain size and is just as aromatic as basmati and popular throughout Tamil Nadu.  A lot of people, including yours truly have been highly disappointed on our first visits to this outlet. I have learnt to attribute this to the hype and expectation associated with this well done up joint chain. However, with time, you realize that the mutton biriyani is addictive for its consistency in flavour and the tenderness of its meat. At Rs. 112 a portion, its definitely not for regular consumption – but then again, biriyani never really is. Save it for that special occasion, especially when with friends after a drink or two and head to their outlets at Anna Nagar (Behind Kandasamy Naidu College), T Nagar or Nungambakkam High Road (Opp The Park).

    o Try with: Chicken 65 (amongst the top 5 in the city!), Chicken Kothu Parotta (one of the best portions tasted at any restaurant in a while)
    o Call: 66321411 (Annanagar), 45506263 (T Nagar), 43090684 (Nungambakkam)

Velu Military Hotel – Yes, that little hole in the wall off Valluvar Kottam High Road. Recently redone, the iconic “Velu Military” still serves one of the best biriyanis in town. A cross between the Ambur and Hyderabadi schools, the biriyani is long grain basmati with a faint smatter of spices served at a particularly delectable temperature makes this a must-try for everyone. A must try is the King Prawn biriyani which, unlike other attempts at sea food biriyani, is actually very desirable. Pricey at Rs. 250, you get a healthy offering of 8 to 10 fairly large prawns per portion. The mutton preparation is more usually priced at Rs. 105 and is also recommended.

    o Try with: Fish Fry
    o Call: Don’t bother, just land up!
    o Comments: One of the few outlets to still retain ‘family rooms’.

Sanabel – a decrepit outlet along Annanagar’s ultra wide third avenue main road between the roundtana and the K-4 Annanagar Police Station, Sanabel has been around for over 10 years, serving the finest quality muslim biriyani in both chicken and mutton varieties. Not recommended for dine-in, a parcel is accompanied  by brinjal salna which is very well done and goes perfectly with the biriyani.
    o Try with: The brinjal salna it comes with
    o Call: 42057107

Special mentions –

Paramount Hotel, Kilpauk & Annanagar – For over 15 years now, they have been consistent in producing the best fish biriyani this city has to offer.

Anise, Taj Coromandel – Was hard leaving this out of the top 5 but the fact that it makes a very unique variety of biriyani – Ghilli Biriyani – is the reason it had to be left out as well as why it makes the cut! The name originates actually from a very literal hindi transliteration of “Geeli” biriyani to depict it’s molten and liquid state. With fine mutton pieces in rice soaked in a gravy of mutton stock and spices, this biriyani is definitely a must-have.

A side note to mention my childhood friend and school mate J. Giridharan who took the effort to respond to a Facebook message of mine about this artice. He sent through a good list of 10-12 places by email – thanks mate, nice touch.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Sambar Trail - Discovering Chennai's five best Sambars

Sambar served from a mug, the traditional way at Ratna Cafe, Triplicane.
Image Courtesy: Anand Hariharan

I must admit, this has been the one story that has consumed the maximum amount of effort, time and money till date. Whether it was traveling to Sriperumbudur to sample a sambar at a small joint based on a tip off or wrestling for parking to get into Triplicane, at the end of it all, I can only say that it was entirely worth it.

I will thank right at the start, Videep Vijay Kumar, my co-author for this story - I respect his taste buds and his forthright nature with opinions. We haven't really been able to convince each other about this list but it's the best we could settle on. Many thanks also to Venky, Mansi Mehta, Rochna, Sudhir Natarajan and others who have helped me put this piece together along with the many on Facebook who threw in their opinions.

I believed for to be a significant member of Tamil Nadu's culinary palate, often not given it's due perhaps owing to its ubiquity. However, this journey has convinced us of how a good sambar can lift a south indian meal or more importantly, how a bad one can ruin it. Discover with us, Chennai's top 5 Sambars:

1. Mathura
My tryst with Mathura's sambar happened by chance. After being chased out of a near shut joint for lunch in Besant Nagar, I decided to venture into Mathura, having read about it on Facebook, amongst the many opinions expressed by people, recommended by Rakesh Gowtham. Unlike the high hopes I carried into the more illustrious Sambar across the road in Triplicane, this Sambar didnt promise much. However, my first spoon and I had decided that this had to top the charts. The most eclectic mix of the pulses, spices, coconut and a hint of ghee served at the right temperature set my taste buds rolling. Deservedly, Chennai's best Sambar.
Tried as/with: Sambar vadai, Rava Dosa
Location: Mathura, 2nd Floor, Tarapore Towers, Anna Salai, Chennai - 600002

2. Ratna Cafe
Touted by most to top this chart, I personally was a little let down by my Ratna Cafe experience. Videep and me made it a point to head to the "real original" Triplicane branch and sit in the non ac section to enjoy it the way it is meant to be. However, I perhaps was a victim of over-expectation though I must attribute that to the 17 odd recommendations that came in for this sambar to be numero uno. Served hot and from a mug, this sambar is thick and works best as a tiffin sambar.
Tried as/with: Idli-Sambar, Ghee Roast
Location: Ratna Cafe, Tripline, Near Zam bazaar, Chennai

3. Mathsya
Just take our word for it - head to this Egmore icon (located within 150 metres of the Egmore station) to enjoy rich, thick udipi sambar unlike anywhere else in Chennai. It's hard to explain why this made it only to 3rd spot, but I guess it's a competitive world out there for the Sambars! Best tried after a few drinks at 1am with Mysore masala dosa.
Tried with / as: Pongal vada, Mysore masala dosa
Location: Near Egmore Railway station. Ph: 044-28191900

4. Ashoka / Palmgrove
The only "meals sambar" that made the cut, the sambar at Ashoka as well as it's cousin Palmgrove (same management) has remained uncannily consistent, more or less, over the decades (or so we hear!). Served hot, this will definitely appeal to those who prefer their sambar not-so-thick and bereft of asafoetida. It's versatility is on display when tried either with rice and ghee or with their signature ghee roast.
Tried with / as: Meals, Ghee roast, Sambar vada
Location: Ashoka - Pantheon Road, Egmore, Chennai-8; Palmgrove - Kodambakkam high road, Nungambakkam, Chennai-34

5. Hotel Saravana Bhavan
It's really not easy to operate at the scale at which 'HSB' does and yet achieve the consistency that they've managed to sustain. And for that sheer reason, HSB's sambar manages to face-off with rival Sangeetha and iD (Sathyam Cinemas) to make the final position on this list. Try any HSB at any point of the day either as Bisi Bela Bhaath, Idli-Sambar, Meals or just with a medu vadai, you will NOT be disappointed. Strong flavoured and medium thick is how this sambar has stayed for many years now.
Tried with / as: Pongal, Sambar Vada, Mysore masala dosa, bisi bela bhaath
Location: We tried the one in Pondy Bazaar, next to Maya Plaza and on Peters Road. To view details of their 18 other outlets in South India, click here.

Special mentions - Karthik Tiffin stall (Annanagar 12th main road), iD at sathyam Cinemas, Sangeetha and Raj Bhaavan (Nungambakkam high road)
Tribute - Woodlands Drive-in, we miss you

We made a conscious effort to not include the Mysore variety of sweetened sambar as made famous by Sukh sagar in Chennai and Chalukia in Bangalore since it has an entirely different, acquired taste. Moreover, this story was to discover Chennai's best sambar.

We were very keen to include Hotel Maris (adjacent to Sheraton Chola, Dr. RK Salai) in the list but didn't manage to make it there and were running out of time to release this. We are told that their idli-sambar is unique and a definite treat. If any of you know about this, do let us know.

I am hoping this story attracts lots of opinion, brickbats, feedback and more. Look forward to the same.